On a Saturday in early March Minister of Education Gerard Kennedy hosted 21 people at a meeting billed as a "new way of achieving progress in our school system."
Students, teachers, principals, support workers, trustees and parents attended. So did invited officials from representative education groups and institutions, including the Ontario College of Teachers.
The Minister's "Education Partnership Table" wasn't intended as a definitive gathering. Rather, it was promoted as a new forum to improve the government's ability to explore and analyze current issues and advance ideas. Something non-threatening. Something to encourage insights and gauge reactions well before change is implemented.
As one who believes in open dialogue as the key to improving public education, I applaud the intent. I also applaud the effort to engage a large network of organizations in Ontario to address education as a public interest and a public priority.
The concept is simple: Invite stakeholders to discuss and debate issues before they become policy.
The Education Minister says that the recent pattern of adversarial communication in education must change. To that end he advocates a potluck approach. He's prepared to host meetings across the province, but he expects participants to bring fresh ideas and feedback. It's not good enough to come to the table simply to criticize the work of others, he says.
The Minister modeled the approach he wants to see by distributing three short discussion papers at the first meeting. The documents, available on the Ministry's web site at www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/partnership, were intended to stimulate discussion at the partnership table and beyond.
"Publicly funded education is not and cannot be the sum of competing interests," says the Creating an Education Partnership Table discussion paper.
The Minister asked the various stakeholder organizations to encourage their members to read and respond to the position papers.
What needs to happen to improve student achievement? he asked. What do we do with test scores once we have them? How can students who are not doing well be supported?
The Minister committed to attend and moderate all the round-table discussions. He also promised to provide background information prior to the meetings to stimulate debate.
Flagging issues in advance of discussion enables participants to offer considered opinions and alternate solutions. It puts participants in the shoes of their table partners. And, where possible, it builds consensus.
For the time being the meetings are not public, he said. The outcomes will be. He wanted to encourage free and open discussion of the issues by partnership table members first and invite public response to position papers or task forces that may be established on specific issues. Depending on the issue the partnership table participants should be ready to come together on short notice, the Minister said. The College will continue to participate, as appropriate, and we expect to be involved in ongoing discussions about the College itself.
At its March meeting College Council struck an ad hoc committee to gather information from members and the public about its role and governance model. In addition to a series of consultations across the province, the College will poll members in its annual State of the Teaching Profession survey in July. If you would like to share your thoughts, we'd love to hear them. Please write us at email@example.com. The committee is keen to hear the variety of viewpoints among College members and will forward its report to Council in the fall for review and the possible consideration of the Minister of Education.
The Minister's Education Partnership Table may not be the answer to all concerns. He recognizes that agreement will not be possible on all topics. But it just may be the stimulus required to get people talking holistically about what's best for public education, the teaching profession and Ontario's students.