David Berliner is a retired Professor of Education from the University of Arizona, a distinguished and respected scholar and a gentleman. He was in Alberta this week speaking at teacher conventions. His point was simple: teachers make a huge difference to the lives and minds of their students, but have no significant impact on standardized test scores. The most significant impact on such scores – Provincial Achievement Tests, PISA scores, etc. – are the social and economic conditions of the families of students. Poor families do not do as well as rich families on standardized tests. More to the point, teachers and schools can not compensate for poverty. He backed all of this up with significant data.
One example of this significant data is the table below. This table, which uses Australian data from PISA, looks at the socio economic status of the students coming into the school (these are the rows on this column) and the social composition of the school (the columns). So row 1, column 1 are poor kids in schools full of poor kids and row 5 column 5 is rich kids in schools full of other rich kids. The three digit numbers in each cell are the scores of these students in that cell on the PISA assessments.
There is a lot of difference between scores of 455 and scores of 607 (1.5 standard deviations). What is more, the chances of a child in square 1/1 achieving the same kind of score as a child in square 5/5 are very low – around 6% - 8% do (it is around 8% in Canada). Given that we live in a knowledge economy where knowledge provides the basis for income and social mobility, this is a very important table.
Remember, teachers have very little influence over these scores. In fact, the OECD itself (which collects the PISA data) observes that some 46% of the variance in scores on its PISA tests of mathematics, science and reading competence were related to social factors, especially poverty (Ash, 2014; OECD 2013). This all fits with David Berliner’s earlier analysis of this same issue: socioeconomic conditions account for some sixty percent of the variance in student performance in the US, with a further twenty percent due to schools and half of that due to teacher practice (Berliner, 2009).
So what has this to do with Alberta? First, remember that Alberta is the leader in schooling in the English speaking world. We are excellent at what we do. But if we want to remain excellent, we need to work at some things to make sure we stay at the forefront of educational quality performance. Given these findings, key to this is the reduction of poverty and income inequality. Here the signs are not good. Here is the most recent data from Public Interest Alberta relevant to this issue:
• 143,200 Albertan children lived in poverty – this is the wealthiest Province (measured by GDP per capita) in Canada
• Most low income families - families in poverty – are working poor
• Most Albertans working for low wages are older adults, many with family responsibilities.
• There is also a significant gender disparity when it comes to low wage work. Over two-thirds of low wage workers (68.8%) 25 years or older are women
• While Alberta has almost full employment, youth unemployment is high (8.9%) and growing.
• Unemployment amongst First Nations youth is also high (8.3%)
• Single parents are especially vulnerable (especially female single parents) as are recent immigrants
• Over the past 30 years, income inequality in Alberta has increased at a rate exceeding national trends: the top 1% of taxfilers saw a 65% increase in their real after-tax incomes compared to only a 5.5% gain for the bottom 99% of taxfilers over the period from 1982 to 2011.
• But it gets worse: the top 0.1% of taxfilers experienced a 136% increase in their real incomes, compared to only a 3.4% increase in the real incomes of the bottom 50% of taxfilers
So on indicators of equity, we are going in the wrong direction. This will have an impact on educational outcomes.
It is also the case that conditions of practice – class size, the investment in special needs education, school food programs, health care for school age students – all need to be improved if we are to stop the trend of poverty and inequality.
Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons 2.0 and a Visiting Professor at Harvard, suggested that there were five things we should look at to ensure we retain our global position as a leader in educational quality and equity:
- Focus on our resource strategy for schools and community development – what do we need to do to create the conditions of practice in schools to enable teachers to be outstanding? What else do we need to invest in for students - school meals, health and dental care, inclusion, special needs supports, First Nations outreach sports and clubs, safe school environments – for schools to be able to focus on education.
- Early Childhood Care and Learning – universal access to child care offered by highly skilled, professional child educators.
- Investments in child health and wellbeing. Whether these are in terms of community programs, support for parents in providing nutrition, community dental programs (the largest single reason for school absenteeism in the City of New York is dental care and dental emergency) or other health supports, these need to be there and maintained.
- . Clear and focused strategies and appropriate supports for special education (students who need differentiated help to be successful) and inclusion of students with disabilities.
- . Balanced curriculum which gives just as much emphasis to the arts, music, dance and design as it does to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 60% of the students in Grade 1 right now will apply for jobs on leaving school which do not yet exist and many of these jobs will not be in STEM occupations (where there is also growing unemployment).
So what is Alberta doing? It intends to reduce expenditure across the board by between 9% and 12% (depending on the rate of population growth and inflation) while hoping that this does not affect “front line” services. Will these enable Sahlberg’s five action areas to be areas for investment, development or improvement? No. Will these have an impact on the educational performance of our schools? Yes. Will the “cuts” impact our economic future? Absolutely? Is this smart? No.
 Ash, P.BZ. 2014 OECD – Poverty Explains 46% of PISA Scores. Education Week, March 28th Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/assessing_the_assessments/2014/03/poverty_PISA_scores.html?r=214197038&preview=1 (Accessed July 10th 2014).
 Berliner, D. (2009) Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Washington: National Education Policy Center – Research Brief. Available at http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/PB-Berliner-NON-SCHOOL.pdf