It was Mark Twain who coined the critical phrase “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” At least, most historians credit him as the originator although Twain, with unusual modesty, always insisted he had borrowed the quote from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
As a man of words rather than numbers, I fear statistics, especially when they run into multi-millions of dollars and are more than four digits long. Thus, on August 27th, I trembled when I received from “Government Communications and Public Engagement, Ministry of Education” two pages of stats designed to provide a “snapshot of British Columbia’s education system.”
It’s a perk or punishment I get as an “Honorary Life Member of the Legislature Press Gallery.” I remain on the mailing list for the full flood of ever-flowing press releases. I read them all. Having paid for part of their production with tax dollars I can ill afford to pay, I feel I should at least skim them before clicking delete and sending them on their scurried way to oblivion.
So, I viewed the snapshot cursorily, quite prepared to be bored, but quickly came to realize I was not just reading a page of statistics. I was also picking up some signals that all was not well in our total society. Reading the stats was a bit like carrying canaries down a coal mine to test for life-threatening gas
Maybe I’m just an old guy getting a little paranoid, but after a few early, comforting, even proud numbers, there seemed to be two or three serious “canary” warnings. But first a polite opening:
There are 1,566 public schools and 360 independent schools in BC. It is estimated pending final enrolment count this month that there will be 538,821 funded public school students in the 2018-19 school years. This would be an increase of 1,737 students since 2017.
Then comes the first “canary” flutter.
“Based on student head-count in the 2017-18 year there were 69,685 students with special needs in the province – 3,020 more than the year before.” Close to 70,000 children with disabilities no child should have to carry? And getting worse each year.
The textbook description of special needs reads: Special Education is a broad term used to describe specially designed learning opportunities to meet the unique needs of exceptional learners. Special Education services enable students to have equitable access to learning opportunities to ensure they achieve the goals of their Individualized Education Plans. Education Plans can include academic, social, emotional and behavioural learning. According to the BC Ministry of Education: “Students with special needs have disabilities of an intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature, or have a learning disability …”
It should be noted that students with “exceptional gifts or talents” are also included and offered extended learning opportunities. I suspect they are vastly outnumbered by children with “disabilities of intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature or have a learning disability.”
My second “canary” died a few lines later in the “snapshot” report: “There are 70,487 indigenous students in the province – 1,299 fewer than the year before.” A drop in student enrollment is worrisome, especially when tied to the statistic reporting that only 66 percent of the indigenous students finish high school.
I rejoiced briefly when I read that 84 percent of public school students complete high school and 87 percent of English language learners do the same. Then my third canary hit the bottom of the cage.
There are 54,063 French immersion students in public schools in the province – an increase of 295 students. Reportedly, 96 percent completed high school. But hold the cheers for a second or two.
There are 5,940 Francophone students in the province – 249 more than the year before. They operate under the Conseil Scolaire Francophone school board and boast a high of 99 percent high school completion plus equal or better provincial exam marks in English than other high schools.
For readers beyond the boundaries of BC, French immersion students attend regular English-speaking schools with French a second language. Francophone schools are French speaking with English taught as a second language
So, what am I concerned about?
- Is the number of “special needs” children rising each year? Is there a cause? Were special needs children “hidden” when I was a child or when my now adult children were going through the system? I remember an occasional “problem” child but not many.
- Regarding indigenous students, I thought we were, and still think we are, making progress. First Nation leaders must recognize that, even though we interlopers made some dumb mistakes when we first moved in, we did correct our bad judgment errors and now maintain a reasonably good education system. But something must still be amiss if native elders can’t persuade their young people to not only complete grade 12 but move even higher on the education ladder.
- How come the Francophone schools have such a high rate of success? Is it pride in work ethic? Tougher disciplines? Better teachers even though they seem hard to find?
Two days after receiving my ‘education by numbers’ e-mail from the government word factory I spotted a single column headline in my local newspaper reading Government Lauds Extra Funding For Schools. The first paragraph confirmed what my e-mail had informed me.”BC’s schools have had a $580-million funding boost to hire up to 3,700 new teachers and a number of educational assistants.” The announcer of the good news – Education Minister Rob Fleming.
Instead of running up the flag and shouting “hallelujah” Glen Hansman, president of the BC Teacher’s Federation reminded the minister his funding announcement was not only old but was a decision reluctantly made by the Liberal administration the NDP replaced little more than a year ago.
“It is something the (Supreme Court of Canada) ordered because of teacher’s persistence through the court,” said Hansman, not something Fleming or the NDP have done. “Beyond what the court ordered there has not been any new additional funding on the operational side from the province.”
The brief exchange reported by Canadian Press can be chalked up as the probing rounds of the pending full-scale education funding battle between the BCTF and the government. It could continue for weeks or months with one observation guaranteed; Mark Twain’s “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” will be mentioned from time to time.
Keep an ear on the dialogue when it shifts to higher gear. And eye on the “canaries.”