The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality – H.L. Mencken
If there is one word that summarizes P-12 education in Nova Scotia, it’s mediocrity. The newest nationwide assessments place Nova Scotia’s junior high school students below average in every subject, with particularly large gaps in mathematics and reading comprehension. For those parents who are vigilant about their children’s education–for example, those who sang in the chorus of dissatisfaction within the 2014 Education Review–these rankings will not come as a surprise.
The review calls for major education reforms that “disrupt the status quo.” Outside of these consultations, however, students and their parents have limited power to shape the nature of that disruption. In addition, many potentially helpful reforms, from abolishing school boards to rewriting curricula standards, will ultimately create a new status quo with its own inherent inertia. A more effective system would be one with a set of broad objectives that encourages grassroots innovation and adaptation–one that ultimately meets the demands of students and their parents. Introducing competition into Nova Scotia’s public education system, i.e. “school choice,” would help unleash a discovery process for best practice measures in such a way that could satisfy diverse learning needs and respond to varying learning abilities.
As a product of Nova Scotia’s public education system, I have firsthand experience with extraordinarily capable students who became the victim of “leveling down” under the oppressive weight of Nova Scotia’s school boards and teacher unions. Fortunately, from grades 7 to 9, I endured French Immersion and I later earned an International Baccalaureate (IB) certificate in high school. It’s an open secret that the primary benefit of French Immersion and IB certification in Nova Scotia is the separation it provides from typically classrooms in the province. Essentially, it is as if an unofficial second-tier exists for a privy minority to self-segregate into, less to upgrade than to avoid the chaos and frivolity of the academic track. In addition to being more rigorous, these programs often have smaller classroom sizes and more external scrutiny that proxy a market test.
All in all, Nova Scotia’s public education system has many victims, but so long as it’s content on being average, those in the tails of the distribution are harmed the most: namely, gifted and special needs students. Indeed, their needs are not just distinct, but in constant flux. The pseudo-second-tier classrooms may be an oasis in terms of limiting disruption, but teacher control of the classroom ought to be a baseline expectation, rather than a luxury scattered arbitrarily across the province.
Samuel Hammond is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing a graduate degree in economics at Carleton University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies