Brian Gallant’s legacy for new Brunswick: 4 lost years

Listening to Brian Gallant since the failure of his brief attempt to carry on as premier in a minority legislature might lead one to believe that a grave error had been made. According to him, the four years of his Liberal mandate were evidence of a commitment to people and the province marked by innovative approaches, careful “investment” and a slow climb toward prosperity.

Such an assessment would be sad if it were possible to believe, for even a minute, that Mr. Gallant really believes all that. Only the most generous – or the most ardently Liberal – could possibly ascribe to the last four years of Liberal rule as anything but bordering on disaster.

The more obvious examples of ineptitude would include (but not be limited to): the province teetering on the fiscal cliff of credit downgrades since the Alward government left office; education “results” that have shown negligible improvement even as the concerns of all those with an interest in the system have escalated; the now former premier’s claim that he didn’t mean “net jobs” when he promised 10,000 of them; the property tax scandal that he would have us believe he knew nothing about; flood victims still waiting for compensation. Feel free to add any examples of your own

Brian Gallant’s miserable four years were concluded quite aptly with an election campaign that was judged absurd even by those who didn’t find it disgusting. Hardly a day went by without Mr. Gallant promising money of some kind for anything and everyone if he had any inkling that he might be able to garner a vote by doing so.

But the campaign took a far darker turn when the black and white posters of Blaine Higgs’ shadowed profile appeared. By choosing a view of Mr Higgs sporting a mustache and combining that profile with quotes taken entirely out of context, these ominous posters couldn’t help remind one of the Stephen Harper attacks on Michael Ignatieff. Because I’m, by nature, prone to some even darker reflections, I wonder if some bright light in the Liberal ranks didn’t think the poster’s photo would remind people of any number of historical fascists. It was politics at its dirtiest.

So I’m not buying the revisionist historical account offered by the now former premier. He was young and ambitious and did all that he could to obtain the leadership, undermine the government of David Alward, be elected premier and then proceed to spend in ways he hoped could buy him votes while stirring up the very linguistic divisions he now pretends to hope to heal. Some will argue that he was just being a politician like any other. If so, his defeat suggests that New Brunswick is ready for something – for someone – different. It is my ardent hope (and personal belief) that Blaine Higgs is that person.

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Aptitude: the missing link in 21st century educational theory

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
– Lou Holtz

My daughter has started her own company, one that seeks to promote and to support entrepreneurs. We’ve spoken often about the things that she encounters but the one detail that I find consistently amazing concerns the number of jobs available in New Brunswick that cannot be filled. The problem? We lack people with the skills to fill those jobs.

In a recognizably simplistic approach, any number of individuals and organizations decry the educational system’s failure to provide the training necessary to ensure that young people graduate from schools and universities with the skills that the economy requires. Fundamentally, such a claim fails to acknowledge the complexity of human achievement and ability.

Perhaps the “economy” requires 100 computer programmers. In the minds of those who are so often critical of the system’s failure to produce those 100 programmers, it should be possible to fashion a curriculum that will produce those 100 programmers from the first 100 students that are enrolled in a school. If this strikes you as absurd, I say simply, good! The product oriented mentality that has come to infect so much of the discourse surrounding education has promoted a view of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled for whatever “outcome” is desired, primarily with an eye to economic concerns.

Please don’t think that I am deaf to economics. When I was teaching, I always assured students that seeking a good job that paid the bills required their attention. At the same time, somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the importance that, to my mind, was once given to aptitude and ability. Because of the ironic homogeneity of our society’s school system – which claims diversity as a central value – students are exposed to a curriculum standardized and uniform for virtually everyone. The little flexibility that exists is bounded by consistent messages that direct one and all to dream of university degrees and jobs that require advanced technical skills.

My teaching career was restricted to the high school level so my observations necessarily arise from that experience. When I started teaching, various trade opportunities existed at the high school level. Additionally, there were programs designed for students who realized they either lacked the interest or innate ability to be successful at the university level. I’m fairly certain that my last sentence would cause a measure of outrage in certain circles as it has become a brand of educational heresy to use a phrase such as “lacked innate ability”.

Rather than apologize, let me say it again, in another way, by virtue of a personal example. Somehow, I managed to make it through childhood without really learning to skate. I owned skates and even went skating a few times but I never really became anything even approaching adept. That being said, even if I had learned to skate and had practiced constantly, I do not believe I could have been the next Wayne Gretzky.

I really don’t believe many people would challenge the notion that certain athletes have abilities that are exceptional and cannot simply be learned. Why, I ask, is this realization so easily acknowledged when it comes to athletics? Why is it so difficult to apply it to other features of human endeavour?

What frustrated me so frequently throughout my teaching career was the determined unwillingness of those with the power to decide curriculum and the design of the school system to recognize that not all students are the same. I have always held that each of us has aptitudes and interests that need to be identified (primarily by ourselves!) and nurtured.

In my perfect school system, such would be the case. I applaud the many teachers I have known over the years who have held on to that ideal even as the system, driven by a product mindset, has been dominated by an underlying presumption that all students can be molded to fit only the most evident economic needs of the day.

The greatest irony of all? The system’s determined efforts to insist that the proper application of uniform curriculum will provide the needed workforce instead produces a few very well-prepared students and a generation of young people with few skills and little clear idea of what interests them or where they might fit in this advanced economy of ours. Hence the continuing inability of New Brunswick to make any improvement in the rate of illiteracy among adults even as the number of graduates from high school increases.

Until we are ready to acknowledge, in a real way, that differences matter – through curriculum designed to account for students of varying aptitudes and interests – we need not look for any substantial improvement in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, neither need we expect to see those many unfilled jobs being filled by graduates from New Brunswick schools.

Electoral reform: it’s not all about you!

Being political doesn’t only or principally mean caring what party wins the next election; to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers.
― Alain de Botton

An article this morning in the local paper caught my eye, dealing as it did with a favourite topic of mine: electoral reform. I’m probably not joined by a great many of my friends and acquaintances when I say that I am satisfied with the system we have inherited from the British. Proponents of proportional representation decry how their votes (and voices) are not counted in a system where a party which receives only 40% (for example) of the popular vote ends up with a majority of seats.

Let’s discount the obvious first. All votes that were cast were, very obviously, “counted”. That’s how a winner is determined in an individual constituency. But that’s not the sense in which the naysayers mean “counted”. In their view, in order for their votes to “count” (what they really mean is “matter”), they must see their collective numbers, across all constituencies, result in someone being elected under their party’s banner.

To my way of thinking, this represents a profound difference in how one values an electoral system and, in fact, government itself. Our current system allows local people the opportunity to elect a local representative. Once that councillor, MLA or MP is elected, he/she becomes EVERYONE’s representative. If you are among those who choose to believe that that is just not true, then I suspect you are more partisan and ideological in your thinking than I am.

Representation and governance are not the same thing. Every vote cast in an election is counted but the hard truth is that elections have winners and losers. Those who long for proportional representation will not consider their voices heard until such time as they have a legislator in place sporting the party colours. Governance, first and foremost, should be effective, and a system which tends to majority governments offers the best chance of that. Those in favour of proportional representation argue that it tends to make compromise inevitable. If you take a look around the world, all too often it ends up leading to gridlock and chaos.

No system is perfect and the current one could, undoubtedly, use improvement. Can we please get over the idea, though, that Canadian government is is dire need of an overhaul? We are a peaceful, wealthy, diverse and well-respected country. Surely our electoral system has played some role in making it that way.

As I said earlier, those who oppose the current system don’t like it when someone with whom they are directly affiliated fails to be elected in some way. And the unstated premise is that no one can conceivably represent someone’s interests unless such a person is of the same political stripe. I prefer a more optimistic view, one where the elected representative takes the charge of representing a constituency seriously and realizes that said constituency includes one and all. To me, such a view suggests a respect for diversity that we are, surely, very much in need of these days.

Back to the Future

As educators, we are only as effective as what we know. If we have no working knowledge of what students studied in previous years, how can we build on their learning? If we have no insight into the curriculum in later grades, how can we prepare learners for future classes?          – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

I’ve just had the pleasure of rereading an old report on school improvement, a report commissioned in the early years of Bernard Lord’s government. While it has a somewhat unwieldy title – “Schools Teach – Parents and Communities Support – Children Learn – Everyone Benefits: A Review of the New Brunswick Education System Anglophone Sector” – it is more commonly referred to as the Scraba Report.

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Perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for in light of the horrifying picture of education in New Brunswick that it delivers. Maybe “grim satisfaction” captures my response, a response that really hasn’t changed since I first read this work upon its release in 2002. The author of the report, Elana Scraba of Education Consulting International, provides an unstintingly brutal assessment of the failings of New Brunswick’s system at the time.

The good news, of course, is that the Lord government immediately adopted a majority of the recommendations the report provided and a new golden age in education in New Brunswick dawned. Since 2002, reforms in New Brunswick education have seen language and math skills improve dramatically while the literacy rate provincially has risen astronomically as a result. Employers report that recent graduates from high school come prepared for the work force while those who go on to post-secondary studies are top of their class no matter where they attend.

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And yes, sadly, that last paragraph was entirely fictional. You might even say that it was written with more than a little bitterness. I remember reading the Scraba Report back then with dismay. It managed to identify virtually every issue I had ever had with the system in New Brunswick, most importantly, the lack of emphasis on a core curriculum that was clearly defined and properly aligned with classroom practice and assessment.

But that’s just the beginning. Rereading the Scraba report, almost 15 years later is very much a “déjà vu all over again” experience. It seems inconceivable that I am reading about things that could easily be used as justification for another examination of New Brunswick’s system: core curriculum, inclusion, assessment results, French Immersion, lack of resources. These are the very things that are at the heart of the Scraba Report’s analysis and ultimate recommendations and they are the very same things that preoccupy much of the time of those who continue to care about education in New Brunswick today.

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The fact that most who might read this have never heard of the Scraba Report should tell you what happened to it. Back in 2002, for a brief moment, the report awakened hope that something real and substantial might happen. An article appeared in the NBTA News, disability groups responded positively, and the report, in general, created some waves. But then it was shelved, government moved on, and the report was left to gather dust. I wish I could say I was surprised. Allow me to digress.

Within a few years of the province implementing the English Language Proficiency Assessments (ELPAs) at the grade 9 level, a committee was struck that got together to review the make-up of the assessments. One representative from each district was sent to Fredericton (I was chosen to represent what was then School District 8) and this group came up with over 80 recommendations for improving everything from format to content. In the end, one (yes ONE) recommendation was adopted: changing when the assessment was administered.

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I offer that story of my experience as a small example of the larger travesty and as a reflection on the current controversy over reinstituting Grade One French Immersion. Both the shelving of the Scraba Report, and my experience with ELPAs, point to government’s unwillingness to tackle, in a substantive way, the confused mess that the NB educational system has become. While we have an incredible cohort of well-trained and dedicated teachers, I watched as, year after year, their enthusiasm and energy were drained by a system that cares too often about all the wrong things to the detriment of teachers, the system and, most importantly, to students.

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What does government care about in education you might ask? Quite frankly, I don’t think they know, except in the most general terms. As the Scraba Report emphasizes in many places in many ways, the kind of change NB needs will take many years. Among the recommendations at the time was “Declare a moratorium on curriculum change for four years”. From the political perspective, that would be a hard pill to swallow.

Education in New Brunswick has long been a way for political parties to claim that they are willing to “invest” in the future. Imagine being prevented from making any education related claims for an entire mandate. Imagine leaving education more properly in the hands of educators. Imagine a system that focused on essential skills and measured its success by students’ obtaining them. Dare to dream.

 

And the winner is . . . .

The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
– Ray Kroc
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Blaine Higgs is the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. Truly, a change has come and is coming. Understandably, a great many of those who are busy with their lives, and have little ongoing interest in politics, might shrug if given this news. “Change”, if you were to do a survey of all elections just about anywhere, is the recurring theme of well over 90% of them. Certainly it has featured prominently in any I’ve either been in myself or watched from afar.

But this is different. I say that (and I can already hear the sceptics sighing) because I know Blaine Higgs. I have been there to watch him when he was the Finance Minister in David Alward’s government. I have been privy to a number of the arguments that were had over the path Blaine wanted to follow and the opposition he experienced in trying to implement certain policies and plans.
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I am not overstating the case when I say that I never once saw Blaine diverge from a principled position he had adopted. The objections raised to certain of his plans were almost exclusively “political” in the worst sense of the word. On occasion, he could be overruled but never once did I see him compromise on an issue of principle for the sake of political expediency. I wonder how many politicians of any age can say that.

The manner in which he was selected was the purest form of democracy. With few exceptions, a cast of volunteers comprised the support staff responsible for the conduct of the actual election. Considering that from beginning to end that meant some 13-15 hours behind registration desks or manning polling stations, their efforts should be acknowledged.
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And then there were the supporters of the various candidates. While each ballot signaled a reduction of actual votes cast, the number willing to hang in until the end was remarkable. I was personally involved as a scrutineer and one of my roles had me observing a mobile poll provided for those who could not endure the long line-ups. Any number of elderly and disabled delegates were determined that they would make their choice known, regardless of the waiting, the heat in the athletic centre or any other reason that might make someone depart. Again and again, I was convinced that a great many people felt that THIS leadership election really mattered.

And, yes, I am among those who believe that this was a truly remarkable day. We live in an age where cynicism and politics are commonly combined in the minds of a great many. Watching our neighbours to the south, it’s easy to see why. But we don’t need to look beyond our own borders. I will allow Blaine Higgs and the elected members to outline the failings of the current Gallant government. But one of the many things that makes Blaine Higgs different is his willingness to acknowledge the systemic problem that afflicts politics in New Brunswick.
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Traditional political culture demands that the opposition condemn virtually everything the government does and that the ruling party dismiss as foolhardy or absurd anything the opposition might suggest. Blaine Higgs wants to build a new paradigm, one where a succeeding government builds on the achievements of the preceding one, rather than tearing down all that came before just because the other government did it; one that promises only to govern well and in the interest of all citizens, rather than promising specific things to specific groups in hopes of garnering support.

Make no mistake: this is new. I happen to think it is an idea that has been around for some time but never before have we had someone who is as willing to put it to the test in a real way. Blaine Higgs has said that his first priority is the province of New Brunswick and its people; second is politics. I would argue that if you take care of the first priority, the second will take care of itself.

In fact, the two are really, in an ideal world, the same. “Politics” comes from a Greek word meaning “relating to citizens”. Blaine Higgs was elected as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick through an appeal to our best selves. He wants to stop waste – of people and resources – and to promote common sense and real solutions based on evidence and analysis.
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In a strange but appropriate paradox, Blaine Higgs is the realistic idealist New Brunswick needs for its next Premier. He is an idealist who believes that people want the best and are willing to participate in achieving that best where and when they can. He is the realist who knows that no ideal can be reached without clear direction and hard work. Now that’s a vision for the future that any New Brunswicker, of any party, should be ready to support.