New Brunswick’s education system is too centralized, expert says

Alan Sears says voters should be wary of politicians ‘who promise painless and quick cures’

By Daniel McHardie, CBC News Posted: Sep 03, 2014 6:22 AM ET Last Updated: Sep 03, 2014 6:44 AM ET

New Brunswick voters should be wary of any politician who promises sweeping changes to the province’s education system, according to the University of New Brunswick’s Alan Sears.

Schools re-opened across New Brunswick on Tuesday and students were filing back into classrooms and getting ready for another year.

The province’s political leaders, meanwhile, were talking about their own plans for the education system if they are elected on Sept. 22.

Alan Sears, an education professor at the University of New Brunswick, said voters should be looking out for politicians who engage in what he calls, “policy talk.”

He said policy talk is when “a form of rhetorical hyperventilating that repeatedly overstates problems and understates the difficulty of solving them.”

‘In my experience, New Brunswick is one of the most centralized and top-down educational jurisdictions in the democratic world.’- Alan Sears

Sears wrote in an op-ed for CBC News that election campaigns are fertile ground for policy talk as political leaders promise bold changes for the education system or commit to overseeing vast improvements in international tests.

Sears pointed to promises made by former premier Shawn Graham in 2006 and Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward in 2010 as examples of policy talk.

“As the current campaign progresses we should be very wary of politicians who promise painless and quick cures for what ails education in New Brunswick,” Sears wrote.

“[T]here are no silver bullets or quick fixes for complex educational problems and promising them then failing to deliver often makes the situation worse than it was before.”

The Progressive Conservatives and Liberals each announced their own education strategies on Tuesday and one common theme was the need to keep politicians away from the day-to-day decision-making in the education system.

Sears offered three broad elements for moving the province’s education system forward.

The professor squarely put the focus on New Brunswick politicians as a very real obstacle to lasting education reform.

“The history of educational reform is rife with examples of significant initiatives imposed in a top down manner that fizzle and die,” he said.

“In my experience, New Brunswick is one of the most centralized and top-down educational jurisdictions in the democratic world.”

He said it is important to avoid the oversimplification of the problems facing New Brunswick’s education system.

Sears said Graham’s pledge in 2006 to see test scores go from “worst to first” was “commendable” but “misguided.”

Education reform will also need to be properly funded. In his work, Sears said New Brunswick often has the same goals of other countries but it didn’t match the same level of funding in terms of teacher training and materials.

“Unfunded mandates are all too common in educational reform in New Brunswick and elsewhere and almost never result in substantial change,” he said.