Tag Archives: education

Smart money from slow learners

 

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New Brunswickers should harbor no doubt that Premier Brian Gallant, with the best of intentions, wants to transform the province into an oasis of educational innovation and attainment. But where’s his plan?

Some intrepid reporting by Brunswick News reveals that there isn’t one – or, at least, not much of one. A big chunk of the $261-million ‘smart-province’ initiative has yet to be assigned.

In fact, so little is known about the government’s priorities on this file that a legislative committee convened to review spending plans at the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour has been adjourned until more information becomes available.

Predictably, this has aroused the ire of the official Progressive-Conservative opposition. “The education minister (Serge Rousselle) could not answer the simplest questions about the premier’s new education and economy fund,” Tory Leader Bruce Fitch thundered.

For their part, Liberal spokespeople are buttressing the ramparts. Says one Molly Cormier, a mouthpiece for the province’s rather attenuated departments devoted to education (there appear to be many): “Senior officials as well as the minister are meeting with stakeholders in the post-secondary sector. . .The (new education and economy) fund was created to ensure government makes strategic investments into New Brunswick’s priorities of jobs and education.”

Fair enough. But Mr. Fitch and his colleagues across the aisle also make a decent point: If education is so important to the Gallant government – if, indeed, it is the architecture necessary for creating a brand, new, economically productive society in this part of the country – then why doesn’t it know what it’s doing, down to the penny, with $261-million in scarce, publicly raised capital? Why can’t it answer the questions its laudable ambitions have raised?

Some months ago, Premier Gallant told me: “I am a huge proponent of the role that education can play in developing our economy, and, of course, what it does for every individual in giving them opportunities in our province. So I am very happy, despite the fact that we face many challenges both fiscally and economically, that as a government we were able to prioritize education to the extent that we did, increasing the budget by $33 million.”

Still, specificity is the jewel in the crown of democratic leadership.

What value does the Gallant government assign to publicly accessible early childhood education?

How much money is it willing to designate to the training and support of early childhood educators?

As it cuts primary and secondary-level teaching positions, how much material value is it investing in literacy, numeracy and critical thinking to benefit the flower of New Brunswick’s youth?

Should all of this cost $100 million, $200 million, $300 million? Shouldn’t we know that $261 million in a government spending priority is properly appropriated before it’s charged against the taxpayer’s ledger?

Or, if this government doesn’t have a smart-money fund to build an innovative, creative province, then say so. And say it now.

I have heard this sort of tripe from our provincial leaders almost daily and for years: “Fellow citizens, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We must embrace the better angels of our own nature. . .blah. . .blah”.

I would rather hear honesty, however brutal, from Freddy Beach.

“Fellow New Brunswickers,” Mr. Gallant might say. “I made a mistake. I should have done my homework before I decided that $261 million was sufficient to meet my ambitions for a smart province. I should have figured out what that sum was supposed to do. I didn’t. Now, though, I will.”

Then, perhaps, we’ll have a plan we can trust.

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Are the kids actually all right?

Whence the minions came to me, seeking my munificence as laird of Bruce manor, I said unto them: “Daughters, kneel close, for I shall not sayest unto thee again.”

And so they did.

“Uh, Dad,” one queried, “What do you want?”

The other one, loaded with homework, merely uttered, “I don’t have time for this. . .Can you write me a letter, or something?”

I bellowed, as befits the King of the Castle, Nay! “Now here’s the deal: I command you both to become print journalists. In this way, you will carry on a valiant tradition – now three generations in the making – of making no money, subjecting yourself to the whims of editorial style, and becoming a self-loathing supplicant of various chain-store media flavors. Oh, and by the way, you should go to college poste haste, rack up enormous debt to prepare yourself for the life of which I speak, and spend the rest of your productive careers looking for good gigs interviewing rappers and garden ladies on CBC. Sound like a plan?”

Oddly enough, my minions don’t remember any of this – most likely because none of this actually happened, except, perhaps in my own feverish brain on a night when I had hoped that I would be heard, considered and then, finally, dismissed as any kind of example.

Indeed, if you read a recent RBC report you discover that “parents underestimate the influence they have over their children’s education. . . While 28 per cent of students say they chose the program they’re in to please their parents, only 21 per cent of parents think they have this influence. What’s more, when it came to deciding whether or not to go to post-secondary school, 10 per cent of students made this decision to satisfy their parents, but half as many parents felt the same.”

I’m reasonably certain that when I decided to go to Dalhousie University and study geology, physics and math in the late 1970s, it was not to please my artistically inclined, journalistically bent parents who – upon hearing my freshman-year course selections – could barely contain their mirth. As it happened, within a year, I had joined them in the general, family giggle.

Yet, I do remember my father and mother encouraging me to follow my dream, whatever it was, in my young life.

I also remember telling my own kids to do the same. One is now an analyst in early childhood education. One is a practicing veterinarian.

Says Mandy Mail, director of Student Banking at RBC Royal Bank: “From choosing which school to attend to selecting a program, students are making decisions to please their parents. It’s important for parents to maintain an open line of communication to ensure students are being thoughtful with their approach and to help ease the stress and encourage a more optimistic outlook on their future.”

Well, Mandy, with all due respect, that just sounds like another speech from another throne situated on a podium to which both students and their parents come to worship, hoping to score the bucks necessary to fill the banking industry’s notion of mortgage-worthy success.

Here, young ones, have another interest-free credit card. Do your university courses dovetail with our actuarial tables predicting income success? If so, have another credit card. Have three.

Come minions; come to us. We’re not your mum or dad. Worship at the feet of the real King of the Castle, mammon.

Unlike your parents, who love you unconditionally and support just about any direction you choose, we’re simply waiting at the crossroads.

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Scrubbing the ‘politics’ from politics

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It’s stunning how political even the effort to appear apolitical becomes during an election campaign.

Take all three principal leaders vying for that vaunted (thankless?) job of premier of New Brunswick this month.

In one corner of the province, Progressive Conservative honcho David Alward unveils a plan that promises to excise politics from educational policy making and programming. In fact, he said this week, “this is an approach that transcends politics and includes sound curriculum development policies, engagement from parents, educators, district education councils and researchers.”

Indeed, he insists, “politicians shouldn’t be making day-to-day or year-to-year decisions that affect the classroom.”

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant issues his statement on education, wondering, in effect, if a Tory echo machine is dogging his public appearances.

“We have to have a plan that will be long term, one that’s going to be based on evidence, going to have commitment and engagement of all people involve,” he says.

Not only that, he declares, “we need to take the politics out of this and sit down with educators, parents, students and stakeholders to build an action plan to improve our education system. . .We think having a 10-year plan, where we invite other political parties to play a role in guiding the plan is the right step for our province moving forward. It’s going to be important to put politics aside.”

Then there’s NDP commander Dominic Cardy who also believes, not surprisingly, that vile politics has poisoned the wellspring of educational achievement and opportunity in New Brunswick.

“We need to back away from having the politicians decide the curriculums, and instead talk about the outcomes we want to see,” he opines reasonably.

Here we have that most precious of spectacles, rarely seen in public: complete and utter unanimity among three distinct campaign rivals representing three philosophically divergent political parties on an issue that cuts to the very core of their collective raison d’etre.

And the question quickly becomes existential: When is anything a politician says or does not, by definition, political?

Of course, the “let’s-get-the-politics-out-of-this (insert appropriate issue here)” gambit was bound to emerge. It was just a matter of when.

In recent years, public opinion surveys in jurisdictions from Nunavut to Nantucket to North Yorkshire have confirmed that the politician who successfully convinces the public that he genuinely despises the very craft he plies to win their votes. . .well, in most cases, wins their votes.

Consider the following item in The Guardian newspaper not long ago:

“Nearly half of Britons say they are angry with politics and politicians, according to a Guardian/ICM poll analysing the disconnect between British people and their democracy. The research, which explores the reasons behind the precipitous drop in voter turnout – particularly among under-30s – finds that it is anger with the political class and broken promises made by high-profile figures that most rile voters, rather than boredom with Westminster. Asked for the single word best describing ‘how or what you instinctively feel’ about politics and politicians in general, 47 per cent of respondents answered ‘angry’, against 25 per cent who said they were chiefly ‘bored’.”

The savvy politician knows that this is the general state of affairs everywhere in the democratized world. It’s one of his trade’s occupational hazards.

One solution is to never make promises, even ones that might actually seem plausibly keepable. Then again, that’s how Mitt Romney managed to give Barack Obama a second term of office as leader of the free world. The public needs at least a little red meat to chomp.

The other option, which Messrs. Alward, Gallant and Cardy seem to understand with implicit savviness, is to talk broadly and winningly about issues that are too big and important – too vital to our physical, emotional and spiritual well being – to sully with rank promise-making.

The alternative, don’t you know, would be playing politics. And responsible politicians don’t do that; play politics, that is.

At least, they don’t when they’re trying to win a political election.

Or something like that. It’s complicated.

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Canadians say ‘ho hum’ to federal priorities

 

Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up...don't they?

Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up…don’t they?

Certain enclaves of the federal government have long suspected that Canadians are far less enamoured of their cherished policies than they have otherwise propagandized. 

Their buoyant rhetoric about the nation’s proud military tradition, bolstered by tens of millions of dollars for war memorials and stagy commemorations, have struck many citizens as crass testimonials to a certain prime minister’s preoccupation with battlefield derring do. 

Meanwhile, thousands of veterans needlessly do without – victims of red tape, official neglect and outright disinterest among corps of bureaucrats whose members have never, and likely never will, lace up an army boot.

Equally, Canadians are, in increasing numbers, dissatisfied with Ottawa’s leadership (or lack, thereof) on education – both pre-school and K through 12. Public school is properly the purview of the provinces, but a sense of national purpose is sorely lacking – a fact manifested in the hodgepodge of early education, primary and secondary programs across the country.

And then there’s health care, another provincial responsibility that could use some sage advice from federal policy makers and office holders. Still, Ottawa’s diffidence regarding long wait times for several medical procedures and widely divergent catastrophic coverage regimes virtually guarantees the nation’s mediocrity in this crucial service on the developed world stage.

In fact, in almost every way, the Government of Canada’s ‘jails and jobs’ agenda has failed to impress the general public. 

The wholesale flight of the feds away from things Canadians actually care about – the environment, hard science, and, of course, the social safety net – to things that merely bewilder them – fighting crime at a time when crime rates are at historic lows; taking credit for creating jobs while repeatedly reminding everyone that only the private sector can and should generate new employment opportunities – has conjured an atmosphere of ennui from coast to coast.

Now, some research commissioned by the federal Department of Finance confirms officialdom’s worst suspicions. 

According to a Canadian Press story this week, public opinion surveys conducted last winter, “suggest key government policies are out of step with Canadians’ priorities, including the Northern Gateway project. . .Members of focus groups. . .had ‘little enthusiasm’ for the proposed bitumen pipeline to the British Columbia coast – even those who said they support the controversial project. . .Rather the groups spontaneously raised education, health care, pensions, and veterans as their key issues.”

The operative word there is “spontaneously”. That indicates that participants weren’t prompted or even asked forthrightly about their feelings. They just blurted their concerns with a degree of unanimity that should truly worry a government that’s running second in the polls, behind the third-party Liberals, and preparing to head into a national election. 

As for western oil and gas, the report, itself – prepared by NRG Research Group – states that “detractors worry about the environmental consequences in the event of a spill, particularly as a result of a tanker accident off the B.C. coast. . .There is an appreciation that increased access to oil will be economically beneficial, but there is still a desire to do so in a more environmentally safe manner.”

A report like this is, of course, exactly why governments employ professional spin doctors. When I was one, back before the federal Grits suffered their political Waterloo at the hands of Stephen Harper’s bayonetted storm troopers, I might have prepared a statement that read something like this: “Naturally, Canadians care about the environment. So does this government. To suggest otherwise shamefully underestimates the intelligence of the electorate, which, need it be said, gave this government the mandate it now takes with great seriousness.”

See how that works? Wait for it; we’ve still got it in store.

In the meantime, however, we might do well to ruminate on what it means to live in a democracy where the government of the day – Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, Republican, Democratic, Rhinoceronian – brooks no criticism, takes no advice, considers no alternatives to its various hobby horses, and prosecutes its “mandate” with a perpetual scowl on its face. 

We might legitimately question whether this political machinery constitutes a democracy at all.

Then again, if we have decided that our rage against the machine will keep us home on voting day, we already have our answer.

 

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