Cuts to developmental education hurt most vulnerable

In India, when a person drops out of school, he or she does not get a second chance to return to continue that education

In India, when a person drops out of school, he or she does not get a second chance to return to continue that education according to my two young Punjabi women students.

Not accident, nor ill health nor poverty nor abuse is excused in that one-time-only system. We are so fortunate in Canada – in British Columbia. We continue to provide access and support to adults who want and need to complete their interrupted educations to improve their own and their children’s quality of life. However, that access and support is slipping away under our very noses. We can witness it firsthand in the quiet but alarming erosion of our developmental education department at our very own Northwest Community College.

The college is in a deficit. We have all heard that. We do know that part of that deficit is a result of the failure of the provincial government to factor a cost of living increase into the base budget; thus we have lost purchasing power. We also know that it costs more to offer programs and services to citizens in this remote, immense, sparsely populated part of the world. The provincial government has also failed to modify a funding formula to rural and northern colleges, which are not able to capitalize on economies of scale, easy access to goods and support services, and high population densities.

There is another culprit closer to home, I suspect. And that may be our own past college management and board of governors who let this deficit mount even though, from my understanding, public institutes are not allowed to run deficits. And now in an effort to recuperate from past poor, possibly irresponsible spending decisions, a new management and a new board of governors seem to have adopted a utilitarian ethos of cutting off limbs to save the college body. I doubt if the amputations will truly save this body. I fear, however, that it will disfigure it beyond recognition.

Efficiency is the sign of the times. The developmental department at the college is not efficient according to the very small cadre of upper managers who are making all the deficit-busting decisions. We, and you, don’t know what research or analysis is being used to guide this administration’s decisions, however. We – many of us at the college in both support and faculty positions – have repeatedly asked for this research, so we can see for ourselves the ‘facts’ that are guiding the deep, arbitrary cuts. That crucially important information has not been forthcoming. No one will provide us with that indisputable evidence. In triage, doesn’t the medic determine where the bleeding is coming from before the life-saving intervention is attempted? We do not know where we have been bleeding from, and this college’s management will not share their research nor their decision-making criteria or their methodology.

Back to efficiency. Efficiency, you see, is not all that matters. Effectiveness and medium and long-term benefits also matter. They are, however, much more difficult and thought-consuming to measure.

37% of the college deficit is being paid for by gutting developmental education across this college region. What is developmental education? Those are the classes that do not exist in India. Remember India? No second chances. In our college region, there have been several small campus closures and those that remain have been reduced by more than half of the teaching faculty and a portion of the support staff positions. We can only suppose (we cannot know as we have NOT been given the evidence) that this is efficiency at work.

Effectiveness – now that’s a different story. What does effectiveness look like? Effectiveness gives an adult learner the evidence to believe that he or she is not ‘too stupid’ or ‘too old’ to learn new skills. Effectiveness sees people who have been shut in to their homes in abusive relationships make new friends (both other learners as well as teachers) and understand they can make different choices in their lives. Effectiveness gives a single mom the skills and confidence to role model the importance of education and the ability to help her children with their homework. Effectiveness lets a parent with an improved literacy level read bedtime stories to his children. Effectiveness gives the past-middle-aged hard working man, who has been injured in the forestry industry, a glimmer of hope that he can learn something that will enable him to make a living without sacrificing his health.

Miracles happen in our classrooms. They are not efficient by traditional number-crunching methods of analysis. Many of our learners take more than one semester to complete a grade-level of study. Many of our learners target their studies to take only prerequisites for entry into other programs, so they look on paper as if they have not completed a full grade level. Many of our learners transfer part way through a program to move to a bigger centre. Many of our learners have cognitive delays and multiple additional barriers that prevent them from completing an official level of study. Many of our adult learners interrupt their educations to respond to the demands and responsibilities of family and community, and if they are gone too long, they must start over – but the good news is they are given that opportunity! These are all still successes by a more insightful, searching, meaningful analysis of success or effectiveness.

The faculty in developmental education programs see very different people than do our esteemed colleagues who teach in the professional and university programs. By the time a learner is ready and able to go on to the university and professional programs in Business Admin and Nursing and Criminology and Social Work, they have most often already worked through many of their issues of unreliable child care, abusive relationships, poverty, lack of transportation, low self-esteem, funding boondoggles, unsupportive family relationships as well as gained a mastery of the specific subject content they need to carry on with their studies. They have succeeded in those daunting and multiple challenges in developmental education classrooms. And those learners who do not go on to post-secondary programs have improved their quality of life in some measure – not the measure used by the current provincial government or Northwest Community College’s current upper management, but by a higher, more authoritative measure of success – their own experiences of self-worth and effectiveness in their own lives and with their families and in their jobs and in their communities.

Fewer than half of the population of learners in development education programs will be served this coming academic year. Those in small and more remote communities will essentially be denied any access at all. The medium and long range impacts of this are yet to be felt, but they certainly include fewer people contributing to, or being able to take advantage of the economic prosperity that we have been told is on the horizon. The community capacity building potential of our region is irresistibly diminished in proportion to our diminished opportunities for citizens to upgrade their levels of secondary education. We deny a significant proportion of our region’s own citizens one important avenue to escape marginalization and to more fully participate in, and contribute to, our region’s health, prosperity and improved quality of life.

I grieve for those folks who would have been our future learners who now have been shut out by the college’s short sighted and counterproductive decisions. What a needless and terrible shame.

Judy McCloskey

March 13, 2012

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