Thursday, May 16, 2019

Jason Kenny and the Test of Time


The early signs from Jason Kenny are clear. He has an agenda. The agenda is a list of classical neo-liberal moves which have yet to produce the outcomes promised anywhere in the world. These agenda items include, but are not limited to:

  • Tax cuts for corporations and high wealth individuals. The claim: this will stimulate job growth and economic investments. The facts: this leads to higher pay for executives, share-buybacks, cash hoarding and the movement of money offshore.
  • The laying off of teachers, nurses and others in health, education and social service professionals. The claim: this will have no impact on front-line services and is necessary to bring government spending into line with revenues so as to balance the budget. The facts: this has a major impact on health, education and social wellbeing outcomes, creates unemployment and damages the long-term future of the Province.
  • The ending of certain taxes, like the Carbon tax. The claim: this is necessary to stimulate the economy and, in any case, there is no evidence that a carbon tax is good for the environment. The facts: (a) this reduces government revenues and increases deficits; (b) it has a direct negative impact on emerging sectors of the economy (so-called green jobs), and (c) the evidence is clear that a CO2 tax is good for the environment. Further, in our case in Alberta, this will lead to the imposition of a worse tax from the Federal Government which, though Jason will challenge, the courts will support. 
  • The increased use of public-private partnerships for public works -  building schools, roads, hospitals, etc. The claim: the public sector is “better” and “more efficient” at managing such projects and this will save money. The facts: There is no foundation to the claim that the private sector is better at managing risk than the public sector. Virtually all P3s in Canada have been justified on the basis that they transfer large amounts of risk to the private sector. But a growing list shows that P3s are both riskier and more costly for the public, as the auditors general of Ontario and Quebec has shown. In general, P3’s are more expensive both directly and in the long term for the public than if the public sector built them.

What we will see, as we saw with Harper as PM, is increased debt, higher levels of unemployment and the growth of Government “managerialism” and intervention (we are already seeing this in Ontario) and a lot of nonsense talk ("bringing back the Alberta advantage" and "being open for business" as if we were ever not open for business and as if the advantage was about taxation rather than the abilities of our people and world-class education and health systems).

Deficits are no bad thing if they are within reason and Alberta's debt-deficit is within reason - indeed, many jurisdictions are envious of our strong position. The "blue-ribbon" panel appointed to find opportunities for spending reduction (never a good thing when we go "outside" for this kind of advice - they have little local context) will suggest significant savings so as to bring down the per capita costs of Alberta's public service nearer to that in BC (e,g a cut of app. $1.2 billion in K-12 school spending) without seeing the nuanced differences between BC and Alberta (look at taxation, for example). 

So, after just a few days in office, Kenny is off to the races - largesse everywhere (you can now drink beer and wine in public parks), but favours for a few and misery for the masses. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

“School Choice” and the Myth of Improved Educational Outcomes


Jason Kenny is promoting the idea of school choice – code for the expansion of charter and private schools. The UCP policy platform commits to equal funding for students, whether they attend public, Catholic, private or charter schools. Alberta already has has the highest per-capita funding of private schools in the country at 70 percent of public school students, compared to 60 percent in Quebec, 50 percent in B.C. and Manitoba and zero percent in Ontario.

Yet the evidence is clear that charter and private schools do not increase the overall performance of the education system in a jurisdiction. The World Bank says so:

“There is no consistent evidence that private schools
deliver better learning outcomes than public schools.
Numerous risks, such as the exclusion of disadvantaged
or less able or desirable students, social segregation,
exploitation of families for profit and the undermining of
public education.” –World Bank Development Report on Education, 2017


And the OECD also says so:

“School choice advocates often argue that the
introduction of market mechanisms in education allows
equal access to high quality schooling for all…However
evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice
and associated market mechanisms can enhance
segregation.” –OECD Equity and Quality in Education – Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, 2012

A 2019 study of the charter schools in Ohio conducted by Stanford University shows that the “typical charter school student in Ohio makes similar progress in reading and weaker growth in math compared to the educational gains that the student would have made in a traditional public school” and further shows “that enrollment in online charter schools is associated with substantially negative learning gains in both reading and math, which drags down the overall charter school impact on student progress”. Similar results were found in Idaho and slightly better results were found for some Charter schools, but not all, in Washington State. Similar findings are reported for academies (charter schools) in England.

But there are also significant examples of failure. A recent report from the Network for Public Education in the US shows that some 40% of US Government-funded charter schools either never opened or closed shortly after receiving government funding, wasting one-third of the $4.1 billion allocated by the Federal Government.

What private and charter schools do to a school system is to change the composition of public schools, reduce overall available funding for public schools and put at risk the equity of school systems. In a major study of the privatization of public education, Sam Abrams demonstrates the negative impacts of the explosion of charter schools in the US and other countries.

Sweden is an interesting case. The country privatized much of its K-12 system only to find that the private providers could not function effectively and produce results. Some went bankrupt. Much like any corporate entity, they cut corners by employing cheaper teachers that were not qualified while spending lavishly on outside consultants. They also employed a competitive scheme where teachers were financially rewarded for garnering better test scores, leading the school to focus more on test preparation than on education and learning.

In England, the transfer of public resources to private firms continues apace. Charter schools (known as academies or free schools in England) have supplanted schools which were formerly public schools supervised by skilled educational oversight teams and local education authorities. More than 7,000 schools have become academies. Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. Funded directly by Government, the only oversight they receive is from their own managing board and from a national inspection service. Many academies are part of “chains” or network of like-minded schools bonded by common ownership. Some of these chains have collapsed in scandal. There is no evidence that academies perform better than public schools, once adjustments are made for intake.

What is more, academies are not efficient. In 2018 six of the 10 largest academy trusts issued warnings over pay, short-staffing, building safety, and financial risks. The trusts cover hundreds of English schools. One of the largest chains, the Ark Schools, posted a £4.1 million loss in 2017-18 even though it had over 50,000 students enrolled. A recent report suggests that eight out of ten academies are in deficit.

So why the interest in charter schools? One answer is money. While the organizations that run them pay themselves handsomely, secure significant assets (in England this includes land, buildings, and infrastructure) that were previously publicly owned and can award their own partner businesses lucrative consulting, technology and management contracts. While the academy or charter school may not be financially viable, the State is always there to “bail” out schools at risk of closure.

A second reason is ideological. Charter schools can pursue their own versions of teaching and learning somewhat independent of oversight by others. In Canada, Charter schools still have to offer the Provincial curriculum and be subject to Provincial education regulations, but have a degree of independence not found in many school districts.  Alberta adopted charter schools in 1994 to encourage innovation and permit parental choice. The thirteen charter schools that remain (three closed due to poor registrations, poor management or some combination of both) are largely located in Calgary and Southern Alberta.

Alberta also has a significant number of private registered or accredited private schools which serve app. 4% of Alberta’s school students. Most of these schools reflect a commitment to a particular religion. The key difference between Charter and Private schools relate to the ability to determine who can be admitted – private schools can select students, Charter schools cannot.  The Alberta government provides app. $13,000 in funding for every child who goes to public school but just $5,200 for everyone in a private school. The funding for private school students amounts to app. $162 million per year out of a $9-billion education budget. Five other Provinces in Canada provide no funds to private schools, yet they persist in these jurisdictions.

Albertan’s have a great deal of choice between types of publicly funded schools. Alberta is one of only three provinces that provide fully-funded Catholic education, and one of only two provinces that provide fully-funded French Catholic education, within the public system.

Would increasing the number of private or charter schools and increasing the level of public funding available improve the performance of the system overall? There is no compelling evidence that it would.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Jason Kenny Fails the Education Test

Jason Kenny’s educational policy was launched this week and received a failing grade from the teacher professional body.

Jason Kenny’s understanding of the nature and purpose of public education is limited. He sees the purpose of school in terms of skills, tests, and competition: competition between students, between schools and between public and private systems. Results of tests are, he suggests, more important than supporting the development of soft skills, compassion, well-being, and genuine understanding. He seeks to determine what is best for children without engaging the teaching profession, who have condemned his proposals for educational reform.

He wants to reintroduce mandatory large-scale assessments at Grades 1,2 and 3 and retain other tests at 6 and 9. This at a time when other leading systems, like Singapore, are reducing testing. Even Australia, a lighthouse for neo-liberal market-driven education, is pulling back from testing in recognition that they do little to improve learning, yet drain the system of valuable resources. Educational tests measure not skills but economic status and the extent of parental support.

He wants to lift the cap on charter schools and encourage and enable more parental choice. This is a coded message. What he means to say, but cannot quite bring himself to do so, is that he wants to shift public assets and funds to private hands. While he will mask this privatization in terms of “not for profit” organizations, the real purpose is to denude the public system of resources so as to create a market for students. This despite compelling evidence that Charter schools do not improve student outcomes or overall system performance.

He wants to “rip up” the carefully and professionally crafted “new” curriculum on the grounds that it is ideologically driven. He intends to replace it with his own ideologically driven curriculum, as yet unspecified. What we do know is that he has bought into the widely rumoured, but generally untrue, view that Alberta has a math crisis despite being amongst the top math performers on the OECD PISA assessments in the English speaking world. He claims that “discovery math” and constructivism has debased math education and destroyed mathematical skills and abilities amongst students. He cites declining PISA scores and scores on Provincial assessments over time as if these captured the nature of maths learning and the achievement of students, ignoring the shifting demographic base amongst the student body over time.  He offers a solution to a problem that does not really exist.

He wants to re-assert parental rights, especially with respect to LGTBQ2 and gay-straight alliances  (GSA's)in schools. He will reposition these rights in amended legislation.  “Parents know what is best for their children”, he asserts. This despite the fact that we have one of the most competent and skilled professional body of teachers in the world who have had years of training and supervised practice aimed at enabling learning. Parents know somethings about their children and teachers know different things. It is the partnership between them that matters, but not to Kenny.

The UCP education spokesman indicated that Kenny will not make significant new investments in education “until the oil price returns to previous levels” (or, he might have added, until the Oilers win the Stanley Cup). The student population in Alberta is growing at 2.1% per annum between now and 2041 and new schools, new teachers and new resources are needed, Kenny himself sent a different signal, saying he would build new schools. But he has also said that he will reduce public expenditure to be more aligned with the expenditure in BC, which would mean a cut to education (K-12) by app. $1 billion. We can only guess which of these two statements reflects his view.

Teachers have not had a meaningful pay rise for several years, despite inflation. Yet they are working with ever-growing class sizes and reduced resources to support students with special needs. Kenny is silent on pay and conditions, other than to say that he will investigate what happened to specific funds given to school boards to ensure that class-sizes were aligned with Provincial guidelines. Inquiring into the past is not a statement about what he intends to do in the future.

Kenny will take the Province into a larger deficit than we have now, since he has promised to abolish the Carbon Tax, reduce business taxes and some personal income tax rates for the higher income earners. He claims he will find efficiencies in health and education and that his economic measures will stimulate job growth. He is offering no convincing economic analysis or modeling for these claims. Trickle down and voodoo economics – Kenny’s brand of populism – results in higher deficits and debt, as we have seen from the first two years of the Trump administration (the US deficit has incrased by 77% since Trump took office).

Operational efficiencies have been a focus for the present Alberta government as well as the previous Conservative government. For example, administrative expenditures in education are constrained at 3.6% of operating budgets for all school boards and some changes have been made to the rate of growth of public spending.

Alberta’s net-debt as a % of GDP is not only the lowest in Canada (app. 8%) but is amongst the lowest in the developed world. Alberta is also the ninth wealthiest jurisdiction on the planet. Kenny’s economic mindset is Thatcherite and his notions of government are classical neo-liberal. He is promoting a hollowed out state view of government and trickle down economics. We have seen this movie before during the Klein era, which left infrastructure deficits, people deficits and skill deficits and an over-reliance on an industry in transition (oil and gas). His educational thinking is rooted in a failed ideology of marketization coupled with tight constraints by Government which in turn distorts the market – look at the evidence from the US and England. Education is not a market it is a public good.

We see some of Kenny’s ideas currently being enacted in Ontario. Class sizes are to be increased, with a potential loss of over 5,000 teachers. Discovery math is to be replaced by “traditional mathematics teaching. Sex education is to be taught using a curriculum dating from the 1980’s rather than the more recently launched version. Testing is to be strengthened along the lines Kenny is suggesting, despite a public consultation and extensive professional review suggesting that this was inappropriate. All Ontario students will also be required to take four high school courses in a fully online mode, likely leading to further teacher lay-offs.

In Alberta:

  •          We can expect teacher lay-offs and challenging issues of recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.
  •          We can expect more privatization through Charter Schools and more Charter school failures (we already have had three).
  •          We can expect curriculum to be a battleground between students, parents, teachers and an ideologically driven government pushing teaching models which do not have proven efficacy.
  •          We can predict even larger class sizes and challenges over the work-loads of teachers, especially as it relates to the support for students in need.
  •          We can also expect no significant change in the outcomes of our education system or possibly a decline in our standing in the world



We may also see teachers deciding that working under these conditions with no prospect of either improvements in their conditions of practice, pay or well-being to say “enough is enough”. More teachers will leave the profession and recruiting new teachers will become increasingly difficult. Teacher training and education will also become more challenging, as funding for universities and colleges will also be under pressure and likely reduced, as has already happened in Ontario.

The official UCP policy is to break up the ATA from being a teacher professional body which also bargains for the profession into a union and a professional body and to take Principals and Superintendents out of the bargaining unit. The UCP have not yet gone so far as to suggest that union membership should be voluntary, but this is the case in many North American jurisdictions. Kenny has suggested that he has no immediate intention of breaking up the ATA (widely regarded as one of the leading teacher professional bodies in the world), but his trustworthiness with respect to promises is low (ask several UCP candidates and look at the “grassroots promise”, now broken several times).

In other jurisdictions another target has been school boards, they have gone in two Provinces (PEI and Nova Scotia) and are likely to disappear in two more (Manitoba and Quebec). Alberta has too many school boards, but rationalizing them is politically challenging. Given Kenny’s mindset (Government (a.k.a as "Jason - knows best") we can expect this too to be a battleground.

It is time for a grand coalition of those who know and care about education in Alberta to fight this nonsense and to stand up for our learners, teachers and Principals. If we do not and Kenny wins the election and starts to act on his neo-liberal agenda, then we are in for a period of significant challenge, decline and despair.  

It is also time for researchers to step up and show the evidence that the kind of policies being proposed do not produce the outcomes claimed for them and that the costs of implementing them in human terms is far greater than stated. The evidence is clear and substantial that neoliberalism and new public management in education damage rather than build, impoverish rather than strengthen while leading to lower outcomes and reduced equity.