By the numbers
"Those who lack a basic knowledge of numbers are condemned to poverty and powerlessness."
Take heed, educators.
When Joe Savikataaq, the MLA for Arviat South, rose in the legislative assembly May 26 to ask that the Department of Education — as soon as possible — begin teaching mathematics in English from kindergarten onwards, he issued a statement that challenges the Nunavut Education Act at its very core.
“I believe that the current language requirements under the language of instruction regulations severely restrict our ability to provide a solid educational foundation in one of the cornerstone subjects of modern education,” Savikataaq said.
Egged on by a narrow clique of administrators and self-anointed experts who have spent the past 30 years talking mostly to each other, in 2008 the Government of Nunavut created the current version of the Nunavut Education Act.
With its attached regulations, the act mandates the creation of a bilingual, English-Inuktitut instruction system. Under it, at least 50 per cent of the entire program, from kindergarten to Grade 12, must operate in the Inuit language by 2019.
As many observers expected, including numerous school teachers and principals, the Government of Nunavut won’t come close to achieving that goal.
The Auditor General of Canada confirmed it last December. But the eventual failure of the policy was predictable even before 2008, when the GN reported that Inuit beneficiaries formed only about 25 per cent of the education department’s professional staff — its teachers.
The education minister at the time, Ed Picco, said the new Education Act could not be carried out unless Nunavut trained and hired at least 160 new bilingual teachers. This was a low-ball estimate. The calculation, did not, for example, account for bilingual teachers who retire or succumb to the enticements of easier jobs elsewhere in the public service.
In those years, only about 180 people per year were even completing Grade 12. From this small cohort, Nunavut was going to find 160 people willing and able to sign up for teacher training?
So despite a $14-million-a-year expansion of curriculum development and teacher training that began in 2008, the required number of teachers did not appear. Six years later, the GN now employs about 640 teachers. Of those, roughly 170 are listed as beneficiaries — about 28 per cent of the total.
No change from 2008. It’s not surprising that a job the department calls “implementation co-ordinator” has sat vacant for two years. Who wants to wreck their career by signing up for the implementation of an act that six years ago was already dead on arrival?
The shortage of qualified bilingual teachers represents just one reason for the failure of the Education Act. Others include poor school attendance, the use of unqualified teachers who don’t have teaching certificates, a shortage of teaching materials for Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, and the near absence of any significant movement towards language standardization.
Meanwhile, parents, students and employers are fed up, and the signs are everywhere. One is the revolt against social promotion that emerged during last fall’s territorial election. Another is the demand that Savikataaq made last week.
He’s likely correct when he suggests that the use of English for teaching mathematics can be authorized by rewriting the department’s language of instruction regulations.
But for the Department of Education, to do so would mean abandoning the essence of the 2008 Education Act.
If that’s the case, so be it. The 2008 Education Act was built upon a utopian fantasy that put the obsessions of its creators ahead of the interests of the young.
Educators ought to know that those who lack a basic knowledge of numbers — how to add, subtract, multiply, divide and compare them — are condemned to poverty and powerlessness.
Does the Department of Education understand that? Right now, it’s hard to tell. JB