Education Funding – how does size matter?

Readers have responded quickly to my challenge for new ideas to deal with the real crisis in provincial education funding, and the dominant theme so far is school size. Stephen Moore wants to eliminate small schools:

My suggestion, though it will likely be unpopular, is to close smaller schools. There are many schools with extremely small classes sizes (and some instances of miltiple grades in one room). I agree that small classes can be beneficial and that small schools are a resource for rural communities; however, these are communities with declining enrollments and an aging demographic. School boards, afraid of a violent backlash from voters, decided to keep these small schools open even though keeping them open requires tremendous amounts of capital per school. This was a poor decision and, based on demographic trends, one that merely delayed the eventual necessity of closing these schools. If these schools were closed when the the boards had their chance, the cuts of 22 per cent would have been easier and far less painful. Communities and politicians looked at this issue and decided to pick buildings over teachers. They should have seen this coming.

But George Gore wants more small schools:

One-room schoolhouses, with a student-teacher ratio of 20:1.  They can be highly energy-efficient and can operate off-grid.  They would have minimal transportation costs.  They could be built by the volunteer labour of the communities they serve.  And if you think that the quality of education might suffer, consider this: the tiny schoolhouse on East Ironbound produced the highest ratio of PhD candidates in Nova Scotia.

Wayne Fiander, who worked for two ministers of education, notes that, “When I left government in 2009, according to the education deputy minister of the day, there were over 3 million square feet of vacant space in the form of schools throughout Nova Scotia.”

Denis Falvy thinks the key is to favor centripetal over centrifugal forces:

Given the experience we now have of distance education and the technical resources available to us in this day and age, surely we can have the bulk of education done in one ‘school’ in the province made available to all schools. Why should 100 teachers attempt to teach for example math, a subject most of them are poor at and hate, when a handful of capable and motivated educators could produce and present the material much more usefully, answer questions much more constructively, and motivate students toward the subject, instead of imbuing the student with a sense of failure in the subject.

Children and teens cannot be controlled long distance however. And students needing special help will continue to need more hands on time from teachers more imminent in their lives. So there would have to be some form of supervision and local help. The best way might be to promote the formation of small groups of students locally in communities, everything from at-home schooling to souped-up day-care groups, to small groups in community multi-purpose facilities. The site for the consumption of education can be flexible, as opposed to the current model of school construction. That would leave the very gifted and the very challenged to be dealt with, but it would provide the majority of education much more efficiently. Indeed, there is no reason why this could not be done on a national level.

This is obviously a long term strategy, but it can be phased in by immediately changing the focus of the current system toward a centripetal attitude toward teaching and a centrifugal attitude toward learning, all facilitated by distance education.

My own feeling is that there are opportunities to consolidate rural schools with dwindling populations. Sydney’s beloved Holy Angels High is a perfect example. Common sense demands that it be consolidated with Sydney Academy. But busing has probably reached its limit in rural Nova Scotia, where some students spend a crazy 2-1/2 hours a day riding buses. So maybe Moore and Gore are both right, and Falvey provides the key that could unite their views. Maybe a community like Pleasant Bay could be inspired to produce some great education with a heavy local, volunteer component, while drawing on distance education to fill any gaps.

Falvey and Fiander have several other ideas. More to come when time permits. (Contrarian does have a day job!) Here’s another question: if Contrarian readers can come up with a discussion of this calibre in a couple of hours, why can’t teachers, administrators, school boards, and union officials produce anything but sterile demands that their respective oxen not be gored?


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