Monday, September 17, 2012

Equity and Education


These are challenging times. Whether its the shifting fortunes of the Eurozone, uncertainty about power and democracy in the middle east, concerns about sustainability with nine billion people expected to occupy the planet by 2050, or the future of schooling, these appear to be difficult times.

What is in fact happening is that we are in the "in between" times between two major patterns of socio-economic reality. One pattern, now coming to the end of its natural cycle, is one in which a single major super-power dominated economically and militarily,  established institutions like the IMF, World Bank and UN were able to steer the world in an direction the dominant powers could support and the global economy functioned well in the interests of the wealthy and the growing middle class. The emerging pattern is one in which power is shared between a number of different interests - China, India and sometimes Russia balance the interests of the US and the EU, as we saw with the vote at the UN concerning Syria in early February 2012 - and the "old" institutions appear no longer "fit for purpose". The relative power and authority of the US, not to mention its economic strength, is changing as other countries strengthen their economies and secure growth.

But there are other changes which are important in that they are shaping the shift from the old paradigm to the emerging frame which we will use to understand the world in which we live.  Six particular patterns are shaping this new reality, each will be described briefly here. As we think about each, the challenge is to see them as opportunities for a new enlightenment - a new renaissance.

Demography is not destiny, but it is clearly shaping a great many issues in the developed world. Canada, for example, has a birth rate below replacement as do many countries in the European Union. What this means is that fewer people will be in the workforce and able to support those too young or old to work or unable to do so. It also means that immigration becomes the source of new labour and the sustainability of the economy, with implications for culture, community, identity and values. As many will live longer, thanks to advances in regenerative medicine and social conditions, strains will be felt in health care systems and on personal wealth. It will be the best of times for communities and the worst of times, as they adjust to new cultural values and norms. Schools will be challenges to be sustainable in rural communities, as migration to urban areas continues (85% of all Canadians now live in urban areas).

Economies are changing dramatically. US sovereign and public debt and unfounded liabilities exceed $210 trillion while private indebtedness stands at $14 billion. Growth has stalled in many parts of the world and there are various forms of economic crises, ranging from the challenge is sustaining the Eurozone, the UK's failure to tackle growth and fiscal responsibility to the slow down in the rate of growth of both India and China. The rosy millennial forecasts now look not just like "cockeyed optimism", but wishful thinking. We are looking at a sea change in how the global economy functions. For governments, this means a new age of austerity and a major rethink of spending, as the costs of health care grow significantly – approaching 50% of public expenditure in each Canadian Province. Education will be challenged to sustain its resource base.

Power is shifting. From the continued fall out from the Arab Spring, to new power alliances over climate change which have emerged post-Copenhagen and new roles for the BRIC economies, we see the dominance of the US in decline and the rise of issue based coalitions. There is no post-Washington consensus. The weakness of the military performance by the US led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan are also signals that "all is not as it once was". What is clear is that power is uncertain and major challenges to the stability of regions - Syria, Iran are examples- show that power and authority are now diffuse. At a more local level, challenges are evident in to the nature of government and their governance. While the public demands more, they are also cautious about the lack of transparency and the failure of politicians to either engage with their constituencies or make tough decisions – and tough decisions are the order of the day. Political expediency is now seen as problematic rather than a skill. In education, the battle to determine who has power and what schools should do is being fought between schools, school boards, unions, government and the profession. Power is a struggle.

Sustainability and the balance between human activity and the well being of the planet remain delicate issues, but are shaping strategies for energy, transport, innovation, growth and development. With seven billion people living on the earth and two more billion expected by 2050, we need to get smart about our life style expectations, social corporate responsibility and leadership. It is clear that using guilt as the basis for encouraging action - the thrust of the climate change movement - has led to only modest and insignificant changes in behavior. But a focus on the opportunities created by population growth and making the innovation challenges of sustainability an imperative could enable adaptation and change. Whatever happens, we need to change our behavior so that we can feed, shelter and support sustainable lifestyles for nine billion people - a major challenge. Our education system needs to focus more on the question of sustainability in the context of both the local community and the global community – when it does so, issues of equity soon become apparent.

Technology has enabled major change. Technology enabled flash mobs to staged the overthrow of corrupt governments, is the engine of the global economy, the reason so many people will live longer and the new way in which people meet each other for marriage. Whether it is regenerative medicine which is using stem cells and related technologies to regrow organs or restore function to failing organs or information technologies which are changing the way education is delivered in countries that are unable to build and staff schools, technology has been transformative and disruptive. The book, music, travel, banking and communications businesses are changed forever. The ways we manufacture goods using robotics or undertake police investigations using new forensic tools are all indicators that technology is having an impact on the day to day lives of billions of people. And we haven't seen anything yet if technology futurists are right. Technology will continue to disrupt, with education being a major focus for this disruption. Private capital is focusing on personalization and “technologizing” education, sometimes to the detriment of learning and community. Equity of access to technology is an issue.

Identity is changing. A young boy of seven in a small remote village in the Canadian Rockies explained to me that he had 149 friends, only six of whom lived locally. His other "friends" lived in eleven countries. With some surprise he told me that his French friends knew a lot of French and could help him with his French homework! But this story masks an issue. He is in fact very lonely and disconnected from his local "real" world while highly engaged in a virtual world. His identity is not rooted in reality, but in the world of Facebook, Twitter and computer games. He has not spent time playing actual games like soccer, baseball or hockey but does play basketball online with friends in Germany. I was seeing him because, as a psychologist, I was a point of call for his depression and anxiety. Identity is also a challenge for those immigrants recently arrived in a new country who are trying to come to terms with different cultures and social expectations, not to mention values and beliefs. Identity is a growing challenge in the new paradigm. There is growing concern at the impact technology is having on the psychological well-being of the young (including the very young) and their ability to be resilient in the face of real-world challenges.

Making Sense of the In Between Time

These six patterns of change are the drivers of the shift to the new paradigm. They are leading to new economic realities, new power balances, new cultural realities within communities and a new focus on sustainability. It would be easy to be pessimistic - the natural state for those who dislike change and would prefer to cling to the past than to leapfrog to the future. But we need to develop our own resilience and ability to leverage change as an opportunity to focus the development of community and the individuals within that community on what matters most.

What would help is if the future were clear - a vision and understanding of the innovation expedition it will require for us to "arrive" somewhere on the S curve of the new paradigm. But this vision is currently elusive and unclear, with many articulating a bleak view of the future.

The renaissance was like this, at least according to Jacob Burkhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878). It was an “in between time” with many seeing the rise of individualism, the new economic reality of States and the decline of feudal power as a paradigm shift. Renaissance thinkers saw the opportunity and created new approaches to learning, politics, new institutions, new forms of art and literature, new ways of thinking. They leveraged emerging technology to make things happen and they found centres of excellence which became lighthouses for what the future held. This is what is needed now.

There are developments which suggest elements of a new renaissance emerging. From the Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturing school in Tipton, the ecologically focused Eden Project in Cornwall, remarkable experiments in pairing seniors with young children to promote literacy, new technologies for personal health management and learning, plans to build carbon neutral cities and communities, new forms of energy being found and exploited as well as advances in social engagement and the occupy movement - all are signs that people are reaching out to the next paradigm.

A vision of a sustainable planet where nine billion people have access to water, food and shelter and are able to live a life that they find has meaning so that they can give meaning to the lives of others through compassion and social action is worth pursuing. A vision for enlightenment, focused on leveraging our innovative capacity to respond to challenges as opportunities rather than threats is a mission worth pursuing. A strategy aimed at lowering barriers to the sharing of ideas, understanding and knowledge so as to accelerate development and give more people the chance to live meaningful lives is a strategy we should support. All of this requires us to focus on equity as a core challenge.

These are the elements of the society we are working towards, but it will be a messy journey. We can expect conflict driven by scarcity, envy, ideology and misunderstanding. We can expect an increase in distress before we see an increase in hope. We can imagine mist-steps on our journey to a different future. What we can't expect is to go back.

 Equity as the Underlying Challenge

One key barrier to be overcome in this in between time is the growing fact of inequity in developed societies, especially those with significant wealth, such as Alberta. The growing gap between rich and poor, between those with advanced literacy skills (level 3 and above)[1] versus those with poor skills (Levels 1 and 2 or an inability to read and engage in basic cognitive processes), between those born into poverty and those born into wealth, between those with disabilities and those without and between First Nations peoples and all others will be a key issue for all of our futures in Canada.

The facts are clear for Canada:

  • ·         Between 1980 and 2011 the top 10% of the working population by earnings earned on average $165,322 after tax (a 34% rise over this time).
  • ·         Between 1980 and 2011 the bottom 10% of the working population by earnings earned on average $9,750 after tax (an 11% rise over this time).

And very clear for Alberta:

  • ·         In Alberta, 148,000 non-elderly families and 73,000 children experienced income inequality in 2011.  34,000 of those children were below the age of 6.
  • ·         According to Statistics Canada (2011), 300,000 Albertans fall below the low income (after-tax) cut-off – the measure of poverty. 13% of all families in Calgary and 16% of all families in Edmonton.
  • ·         The Conference Board of Canada (2011) found that Alberta’s low-income rate increased from 6.6 to 9.9 per cent between 2009 and 2011.
  • ·         Over two-thirds of low wage workers in Alberta are women.  More women work in low wage non-standard occupations than men, usually for low pay without any benefits and not qualifying for employment insurance.

At the heart of inequality is education, most especially literacy. When we look at the impact of education on the ability to work and earn, we see that there is a growing demand for workers holding a post-secondary qualification. Linda Duxbury, in her studies of Canadian demography, observes that some 70% of jobs now require a post-secondary qualification – a college Diploma or a university degree. This is expected to rise to 77% by 2020.

The difference in earnings between those who leave school without a High School Diploma (average earnings $21,200) and those with a degree (average earnings $48,600)[4] is substantial, as is the ability to increase earnings over time amongst those with post-secondary education – the higher the qualification the higher the earning power.

This is an especial challenge for those from First Nations. The strongest performance by students with registered Indian status who wrote the Provincial Achievement Test was in grade 3. Over the past two years approximately 40% of grade 3 students in band-operated schools and 50-70% of aboriginal students in other school systems met the Acceptable Standard in English language arts and mathematics. The weakest performance was in grade 9. In the past three years, fewer than 15% of grade 9 students in band-operated schools and fewer than 50% of students in other school systems met the Acceptable Standard in mathematics, science and social studies. While this measurement data exists, these observations cannot be generalized to all students with registered Indian status in the province due to the low participation rate of these students in the Achievement Testing Program, especially at the grade 9 level[5].

Given the fact that the aboriginal student population is fast growing, the growing inequity between First Nations peoples and other Canadians is a source of social tension. The unemployment rate for First Nations is twice that for other Albertans. Just over 33% of aboriginals in the workforce have no post-secondary qualification and only 6.7% hold a first degree[6].

Given the pattern of educational outcomes in Canada, it is likely that Canada will experience major challenges in securing the skills needed. Linda Duxbury suggests that by 2020 Canada could be short about 1 million workers due to the decreasing fertility rates, an ageing population and the skill gap between the output of education system and the demands of employees.

The Canadian Council on Learning has also indicated there is a clear “gap between the demand for workers with strong literacy and numeracy skills and the supply of Canadians who possess them.” They point out that the growth in the information communication technology industries, coupled with the reduced demand for unskilled workers due to foreign outsourcing, has only served to intensify the need for skilled workers.

The question is why there is such a gap when Canadian teenagers do so well on tests such as PISA's and on various other measures of educational outcomes. The answer, they posit, lies in the failure of adults to keep up with the “demands of the emerging knowledge society and information economy”. In other words, lifelong learning is as essential to a strong economy as successful schools (as can be seen in the OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on adult participation in education and learning, job-related training is comparatively low in Canada).

For literacy, the data is most disconcerting:

         42 per cent of the Canadian population—nine million people—between 16 and 65 years of age have literacy levels that do not permit their full engagement in a knowledge-based society.
         In Alberta the absolute numbers of adults with skills below Level 3[9] is projected to grow from 1,051,413 to 1,233,000 from 2006 to 2016, or 17%.
         Overall 46% of employed Alberta workers have a literacy skill deficit.
         18 Alberta industries function with 50% or more of their employees with literacy levels below that demanded by their jobs.
         One third of young employed persons have literacy skills below the level required for their occupation.
         59% of immigrants in the experienced labour force are in literacy skill deficit compared to 43% of their non-immigrant peers.

- this despite frequent testing for learning outcomes in Alberta. It is not that reading is absent, more that comprehension, critical and adaptive thinking and in-depth understanding are in short supply.

Literacy, as defined here, thus is a major source of inequality: without literacy at the skill level required, then promotion and advancement in employment and labour mobility are inhibited.

Canada and Alberta has growing gap between rich and poor and between those with high literacy skills and low skills. Skills shortages will occur, even though there will be individuals searching for work. The gap between searchers and employment will be focused on educational attainment and literacy.

Education and Equity

These data and our understanding of their dynamics suggest that equity is a major challenge for our society as development occurs. As the gap between rich and poor grows, fuelled by educational attainment and literacy, we will see growing challenges to the viability of organizations, communities and occupations – all placed under stress by the six forces which this chapter began with.  But there is another form of equity that we should be conscious of. That is the equity between schools in terms of their ability to make a difference to students learning.

One the claims of the Finish system, documented in Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons[10], is that the learning outcomes achieved by schools in Finland show little difference between them. In fact, Sahlberg goes further and suggests that variance within a school in terms of performance is greater than the variance between them (see page XX). He suggests that this is a critical component of the Finish school system – the lack of significant difference in outcomes between schools means that there is geographic equity (outcomes are not dependent on where you live or which school you attend) as well as actual equity. He sees such equity as a major thrust for educational policy.

This between school equity is not the case in other jurisdictions. In the UK, for example, there is a vast difference in outcomes between one school and another, reflecting both the “inputs” into the school system as well as its learning processes[11]. This is also the case for many other school systems. The key variables here are poverty, the literacy skills of parents and their social network and investment.

In Alberta, schools perform well on international measures of attainment, such as PISA and TIMSS. However, when Provincial Achievement Test data are reviewed, it is the case that significant differences exist between schools in terms of their performance on standardized tests[12]. Indeed, so substantial are the differences that the Minister of Education felt compelled to act in dismissing a School Board whose district (Northlands) had significant and sustained under-performance in comparison with others.

This is a complex challenge. Poverty and values as well as social conditions and community shape educational attainment and attitudes towards learning. The school is a part of a complex system of interactions which shape learning and performance. Seeking to secure equity so that schools are a great place for learning for all students is a major challenge and requires new thinking, new approaches to teaching and learning and new patterns of investment.

Equity in education has two dimensions. The first is fairness, which basically means making sure that personal and social circumstances – for example gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin – should not be an obstacle to achieving educational potential.

The second is inclusion, in other words ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all – for example that everyone should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. The two dimensions are closely intertwined: tackling school failure helps to overcome the effects of social deprivation which often causes school failure.

The OECD, which increasingly is seeing equity as the cornerstone of an educational strategy which countries need to adopt, suggests that there are ten steps to achieve equity in education. These are[13]:

In Designing an Education System Focused on Equity:
·         Limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection.
·         Manage school choice so as to contain the risks to equity.
·         In upper secondary (high school), provide attractive alternatives, remove dead ends and prevent drop-out.
·         Offer second chances to gain from education.
For education practice:
·         Identify and provide systematic help to those who fall behind at school and reduce year repetition.
·         Strengthen the links between school and home so as to help disadvantaged parents to help their children to learn.
·         Respond to diversity and provide for the successful inclusion of migrants and minorities within mainstream education.
·         Provide strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling.
·         Direct resources to the students with the greatest need.
·         Set concrete targets for more equity, particularly related to low school attainment and dropouts.

And while Canada performs well on some of the OECD indictors of educational equity (better than Finland in mathematics and just behind Finland in reading), there is much to do to make equity the cornerstone of our thinking about the school and its future.


The great baseball legend Yogi Berra once famously said "the future isn't what it used to be". He was right. We should take comfort, then, from Dan Quayle's belief that "the future will be better tomorrow". It will only be so if we address equity as the central challenge for Canada in the twenty first century.

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[1] Description of Adult Literacy Levels
Level 5 – Very strong skills able to find information in dense text and make high-level inferences or use specialized background information.
Level 4 – Strong skills able to integrate and synthesize information from complex or lengthy passages.
Level 3 – Adequate skills for coping in a complex advanced society. Equivalent to the skill level required for high school completion and college entry.
Level 2 – Weak skills, can deal with simple clearly laid out material. May be able to cope with everyday demands but will have difficulty with new situations.
Level 1 – Very poor skills, may not be able to determine the correct dosage from the label on a medicine bottle.

[4] See
[5] Source: Alberta Education.
[6] See Taylor, A., Friedel, T.L. and Edge, L. (2010) First Nation and Metis Youth in Northern Alberta. Ottawa: Institute on Governance (mimeo).
[9] See previous description of literacy skill levels

[10] Sahlberg, P (2011) Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn from Educational Change in Finland. New York: Teachers College Press.
[11] See a  body of work on school effectiveness, value added and school performance by authors such as David Reynolds, David Hargreaves and others. This work was triggered by the pioneering work of Rutter, M et al (1982) Fifteen Thousand Hours – Schools and Their Effects  on Children. Boston: Harvard University Press. Also see Reynolds, D [editor] (2000) International Handbook of School Effectiveness Research. London: Falmer.
[12] See, as evidence, which, while extremely limited in scope, does show significant differences in outcomes on key measures for elementary schools.
[13] See OECD (2008) Policy Brief – Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Paris: OECD.

1 comment:

bonzoi Jaylon said...

All of this education will be valuable to you in your professional career. Companies give preference - whether fairly or unfairly - to the top tier universities and business schools like Harvard, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

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