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. 

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