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Does Nunavut’s quality of education get a passing grade?

The number of high school graduates in Nunavut has gradually been rising, but is the quality of their education adequate?

An example of a Soundfield system in a Nunavut classroom can be seen in the top right corner of this picture provided by the Department of Education. The device enhances acoustics for everyone in a classroom and it’s one of the many approaches that the department is using in an attempt to improve education outcomes.
photo courtesy of the Department of Education

MLA John Main has been trying to get an answer to this question, but he says there are few reliable measures. He used departmental exams as one yardstick and that showed Nunavut students failing at a rate between one-quarter and one-third of the tests up until 2019, when partial results revealed that 64 per cent failed.

“I am very concerned with the numbers that came from the Department of Education. Keeping in mind that many students drop out before Grade 10 and never even write a departmental exam,” Main said in the legislative assembly last year.

Education Minister David Joanasie described the trend from the departmental exams – which are based on the Alberta curriculum – as “stable.” He said Nunavut has improved its graduation rate since dividing from the Northwest Territories, although he noted that only 41 per cent of students successfully completed Grade 12 in 2018.

“We want to continue to increase that number. If there any suggestions on how we can do that, we are open,” said Joanasie.

Main pointed out that a Department of Education request for proposals referred to the territory’s “low graduation quality” as an “emerging challenge.”

“We hear a lot of concerns from the parents of the school children and they’re concerned that even if they graduate from Grade 12 and even if we say that they have completed Grade 12, they are not up to par with the rest of Canada,” said Main.

The Department of Education doesn’t track how many Nunavut graduates need to upgrade their marks to get accepted into a post-secondary institution. However, the department has increased the opportunities for students to rewrite departmental exams and 105 students did just that in 2019.

Degrees of Success 2020 — a report on education in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Joanasie pointed to numerous other initiatives that the department has adopted through a “holistic approach” such as the Inuktut Titiqqiriniq Balanced Literacy Program, improving technology and acoustics in classrooms, anti-bullying messaging such a Pink Day, family and community engagement efforts, a redesign of the Nunavut Teacher Education Program and the Inuit education leave program, which allows GN employees to pursue educational goals. There’s also support for existing GN staff to become teachers, such as through the Inuit Employment Plan and Educational Leave Program, Joanasie noted.

The territorial government has had difficulty recruiting teachers over the past few years, starting the school year with a shortage of educators. In efforts to overcome this, Joanasie said the Department of Education has promoted that Nunavut offers among the best range of teachers’ salaries in Canada – $78,438-$122,360 – plus benefits including housing. The GN is also aiming to make Nunavut schools “safe and caring spaces,” according Joanasie, which may help alleviate the Nunavut Teachers’ Association’s concern that classroom violence is driving teachers out of the territory.

Joanasie added that many classrooms offer educational support services that are grounded in inclusive education – supporting learners at all levels – and the Inuit societal values of inuuqatigiitsiarniq (respecting others, relationships and caring for people) as well as piliriqatigiinniq (working together for the common cause).

Declining attendance is another major challenge. See coverage on that issue here:

More metrics desired

Main said he’s heard anecdotally about numerous students being forced to upgrade academically to get into post-secondary programs and some employers have told him that locally hired graduates aren’t grasping fundamentals or skills that they should have learned in high school.

He’d like to see facts and figures relating to how Nunavut students and graduates stack up.

“There isn’t enough information available… in terms of here’s a measure of the quality of our graduates. That information just isn’t out there,” he told Nunavut News. “We’ve had some indications that (the Department of Education) is going to be providing more information perhaps in annual reports. If that does happen and we do have more reports coming out… that would be a good first step. That would give us something to go on.”

Main, who said there ought to be paths for students interested in university, college, trades and other careers, said he’ll be satisfied if his children are able to get the same quality of education that he received as a student in Arviat 20 years ago. It enabled him to attend Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and he didn’t require upgrading.

“It gave me what I needed,” he said.

Fact file
Departmental exams

2019 (partial results): 176 departmental exams passed; 315 failed

2018: 445 exams passed, 162 failed

2017: 508 exams passed, 216 failed

2016: 485 passed, 201 failed

*Most of the written exams were for English language arts, but also for math, sciences, social studies and French in grades 10 to 12

Source: Department of Education