Category Archives: education

How Much are we Subsidizing Private Education?

I have been actively involved lately in plenty of discussion about the public funding of private education that we do in Alberta. I don’t believe that we should be providing any public funds to private education. If you decide that the public system is not for you, that’s fine, then you should pay for it with your own funds.

A common retort that I hear is, “we pay taxes and so we should have the funding go to the school we choose.” As I am apt to do, I decided to do some math on the situation. Here is my analysis.

Every calculation involves assumptions, so I will let you know that the numbers come from the Alberta government’s projected 2016 budget and the calculations are based on an average two parent family with two average income earners and two school aged students.

Alberta will collect $11.4 billion in personal income tax in 2016 and there are an estimated 2.26 million employed Albertans. This results in an average of $5,044 in provincial income tax per employed Albertan, or $10,088 for the test family.

Let’s say that this family also owns a home, they will pay $2.48 in education property tax per $1,000 that their home is worth. The average home sold in Alberta so far this year was worth $386,000 (http://creastats.crea.ca/area/). So this average couple will also contribute $957 in education property tax, for a total of $11,045 in direct provincial taxes.

Education, including capital projects, amounts to 16.4% of the provincial budget ($9.8 billion out of $59.6 billion), so of this family’s $11,045 in provincial taxes, $1,811 will go to education. So, for the hypothetical family with two kids, they contribute $906 per child in taxes to their education.

An accredited private school receives $4,676 in base funding per pupil, plus $71 in Equity of Opportunity funding plus $462 in plant operations and maintenance for a total of $5,209 per student in public funding (plus a few other non-capitated grants).

Bottom line: in public funding for private schools, $906 per student comes from the parents and the other $4,303 is subsidized by the government.

An average parent’s contribution through provincial tax to the education of their child is only 5.9% of the total per pupil cost. So why are private schools getting 70% of the base instructional grant?

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On Being a Teacher, or Why Merit Pay Stinks.

I’m taking a course on organizational theory right now and the readings have caused me to reflect on an issue that is getting a fair deal of play in education right now – merit pay for teachers. There are many specific arguments that can be made as to why merit pay is a bad idea and doesn’t work, but I am a fan of looking at things from first principles. My readings on organizational theory have helped me to consider the first principles that are at play for the people who argue in favour of merit pay.

Those who tend to argue merit pay also argue for school choice, competition, rankings and the implementation of all sorts of market reforms in the education system. Ultimately these arguments are based on a fundamental vision of education that is drastically different from mine and that of most people close to schools. The market reformers view education in terms of a factory, where the inputs are young students with little knowledge and the outputs are graduates with a vast array of knowledge. Somewhere in between there is a transformation process where teachers install knowledge into pupils. The vision is of little boys and girls sitting on an assembly line, moving forward from teacher to teacher as the workers open flap A, insert knowledge component X and apply a diagnostic scanner to ensure the component is working properly. Next station!

Scientific Management guides this style of production and requires managers to “develop precise, standard procedures for doing each job; select workers with appropriate abilities; train workers in the standard procedures; carefully plan work; and provide wage incentives to increase output” (Daft and Armstrong, 2009, p. 24). The approach was pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor and worked well when implemented in the Bethlehem Steel Plant in 1898 to ensure that more employees unloaded more iron and loaded more steel onto rail cars.

Forgive me for being condescending, but students are not chunks of iron and plates of steel. Nor are they intricately wired and extensively engineered automobiles being pieced together on an assembly line.

(Interestingly, the Hawthorne Studies of the late 1920s and early 30s showed that performance incentives actually had a demotivating effect, even for factory work, and that improvements to productivity were actually made through the positive treatment of employees and by listening to employees concerns and ideas. But I digress.)

My argument is this, students are not products moving along an assembly line and teachers are not factory installers. The work of education and of teachers is complex, variable and highly skilled. As was once described to me by a speaker whose name I forget, pilots fly a finite number of models of planes and if they don’t know something about the plane there is a manual they can pull out to find the answer – students don’t come with manuals. Students do however come with an infinite number of contextual variables: family, prior education, economic status, emotional aptitudes, intellectual variables, medical conditions, behaviour disorders, talents, passions, fears, hopes and dreams.

The important work of teachers, done well, requires sorting through those variables to assess the needs of individual students, designing educational plans that meet those needs, implementing the plans and adapting as required, while observing multiple data sources to determine whether the outcomes are being met and what further steps need to be taken.

This type of work can not be boiled down into standard procedures and cannot be appropriately measured using standardized tests. Increasing teacher effectiveness is achieved not by tying a carrot to the end of a stick, but by providing teachers with the time, resources and professional freedom that is required to get the work done well. Those people who are looking for accountability should look to professional models like those in place for doctors and lawyers where the professionals are required to maintain ongoing professional development (prescribed by the individual practitioners) and the profession is given the authority to police the competency of its peers and determine whether they are fit to practice. (Interestingly, in Alberta, we are almost there.)

The best thing that can be done for education and our students is to provide the conditions necessary to allow teachers to do their important work.

References

Daft R. L., & Armstrong A. (2009). Organization theory and design. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

Fraser Institute is Flat Wrong

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Manning Centre for Democracy’s conference on Alberta’s future. What I didn’t discuss in that post was how I spent an hour in the afternoon in the foyer outside the conference room talking about education with Fraser Institute economist Peter Cowley. Cowley is the author of the Fraser report cards on education and is trotted about as their educational expert, although he has no credentials in the field. The useless and over-normalised ranking of Alberta’s high schools appeared in the Calgary Herald last weekend. Along with an exceptionally well-written and referenced (especially given the rotten assignment) article from Sarah McGinnis, the feature included a fallacious and ignorant editorial from Cowley.
Most of the fallacies in his argument can be accounted by the fact that he is an economist from BC and not an educator in Alberta. What is most reprehensible is that I pointed out these fallacies to him in January and he chose to ignore them and propogate the myths.

Fallacy Number One: “there is no provision for the routine expansion of successful operations.” For 10 years, educational partners in Alberta have been engaged in a process specifically designed to expand successful operations called the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. It is a highly successful model that is based on collaboration between a number of stakeholder organisations, including the ATA. It is the exact opposite of competition and it is having profound impacts on learning in Alberta that would not be possible under Fraser’s preferred models for education.

Fallacy Two: “professional autonomy in the classroom inhibits the adoption of more effective teaching practice.” Once again, this is completely opposite from the truth. As a teacher I had many strategies for delivering curriculum. Some of them were safe, tried and true. Others were innovative, off-the-wall and risky. Some of the practices I tried worked and others did not, but it was because of professional autonomy that I felt I could try them out, evaluate their effectiveness and adjust my practice accordingly. Without autonomy, I would have continued to deliver the safe, tried and true methods day-in and day-out.

Fallacy Three: “professional autonomy limits the principal’s role as head teacher and mentor, making classroom level improvements more difficult to establish.” Autonomy means that I, as an educated professional, can choose which practices I will use in my classroom. If my principal wants me to use a different strategy he would need to make the case for it. He needs to convince me of its merits and we would have to engage in academic discourse over its pedagogical value. As a result of this collegial environment, we have better educational outcomes for students. The alternative is that the principal comes in and dictates practice without discussion and without debate over what is best for the individual students in the individual classrooms (this is mentorship?).

Fallacy Number Four: “limitations on hours of work make it difficult for individual schools to extend the school timetable.” Interestingly, in Alberta, the school jurisdictions with the most flexible timetables are the same jurisdictions that have hours of work clauses in their collective agreements. These agreements simply mean that the boards must achieve such changes in consultation with teachers. In many cases, the flexibility that allows for these innovations is because of these clauses. By spelling out the number of hours of assignable and instructional time for a teacher, it becomes easier to allocate those hours outside of the traditional teaching day.

Fallacy Number Five: there is “no evidence that any BC teacher had ever lost his right to teach due to incompetence.” I don’t have expertise in the BC education system and so will not comment on that aspect, but this is not the case in Alberta. Until last year teacher competency was enforced by the Council on Alberta Teaching Standards, who have removed certificates from teachers deemed to be not competent. Alberta’s teachers are committed to upholding the honour and integrity of the profession, they have enforced professional conduct for decades and last year took over the role of policing competency as well.

Simply put, Cowley is an economist from British Columbia who has made no significant efforts to truly understand the education system in Alberta. He is advocating a tired mantra of privatisation and using falsehoods and data manipulation to advance his cause. I’m less dissapointed in him than I am in the Calgary Herald for publishing the tripe.

Inspiring Education report comes with risks

Inspiring Education came out with its long anticipated report yesterday and the initial response is quite positive. The primary vision is reflected in the three-Es for an educated Albertan: Engaged Thinker, Ethical Citizen and Entrepreneurial Spirit. But a number of themes quickly emerge as being dominant in the report:

  • a shift in student outcomes from content to competencies;
  • a shift in the role of teachers from knowledge authority to architect of learning;
  • changes to the roles, responsibilities and makeup of governance teams;
  • moves away from testing students as a form of accountability;
  • education that is focussed on the needs of individual learners.

Taken at face value for the relatively vague statements they are, these are all great moves for our education system and will be beneficial for our students.

Generally speaking it is a great report and it is, more than anything else, inspirational. But there are a lot of pitfalls hidden between the lines of the 52 page document.

The first and by far biggest issue for Education Minister Dave Hancock will be managing the expectations of the over 4000 voices who participated in the process and the many stakeholders in the education system. There are a lot of generalisations and ambiguities contained within the report, most of which are positive and easy for people to rally around. This of course means that anyone can take their individual vision, bias or agenda and tuck it into this safe little wrapper called Inspiring Education. Consequently, there will be a lot of people ticked off because their vision – which they believe was included in Inspiring Education – is not being realised.

The second big issue for Hancock is essentially part of the first issue and that is funding. The document contains some pretty big ideas and monumental shifts in direction for the large ship that is Alberta’s Education system. Like changing the course of any big ship, achieving these changes is going to take a whole lot of fuel and a whole lot of time. Government cannot continue to underfund education while purporting to follow a vision for an innovative, responsive, learner-centred public education system. This is simply something that the citizens of Alberta must hold the government to account on. It is an ambitious vision, but education is worth every penny that we invest on it and the government needs to be willing to spend that money regardless of the price of oil.

There are a lot of issues encapsulated in this idea of a learner centred education system, even though there is little doubt that it is the ideal system. The reason we have a factory model of education currently in place is because it’s cheap. When teachers talk about the need to reduce class size, it is because they know they can do much more for each child if they only had more time to spend with each individual. If the entire system is going to be based on individualised instruction and individual needs we are going to need a whole lot more teachers. An associated risk is the notion that technology will be some silver bullet that can be used to fix everything. Teachers will tell you that technology takes time – there is time associated with learning the technology, there is time associated with assessing its validity and usefulness and there is time associated with implementing it. And yet, technology will not be able to replicate the role of teachers as architects of learning. Teachers will still need to spend time with students, assessing their needs, determining outcomes and strategies for learning and assessing that learning. Similarly, teachers will still need to spend time away from students focussing on planning, marking and professional development. Added time means the need for more teachers and that will cost money.

The final big risk is related to this idea of governance. I wholeheartedly agree that the governance model needs to be strongly reconsidered. Community is the reason for public education and the community needs to play a larger role in the governance of their schools. My sense is, this needs to happen at the local level as close to the classrooms as possible. The recent angst in Edmonton over school closures is a prime illustration of why we need to change the system of governance. One of the biggest reasons that Edmonton ended up in this situation is because of a disconnect between the decisions made (albeit decades ago) in urban planning by city hall and the ones made in school placement by education governors. In Finland, the schools are governed by the town councils – I’m not suggesting that is the model that should be used here, but it has a number of advantages that should be taken into consideration. The risk here is that people already perceive this to be an attack on school boards and on local elections. That should not be a concern. What needs to be created is a new model where schools are given more autonomy to make decisions, based on the needs of the students in the school, in consultation with the local community – and the governance model should facilitate that.

I want to end by reiterating my statements at the beginning of this post. Inspiring Education is a good document evolving from some very valuable and authentic work. There are risks that need to be managed, but that is not necessarily a criticism of the report or the process. To borrow some language from the Minister, we are all looking forward to some transformational change that is focussed on the best interests of students. In the end a strong effective public education system is the best investment we can make for the province of Alberta.

My Stop the Cuts letter.

Dear Brian Mason, Minister Hancock and Premier Stelmach:

Albertans have sacrificed and worked hard over the past fifteen years to help eradicate our provincial debt. They did so because they knew that future payments on that debt would pose a risk to the quality of services the Alberta government provided in the future.

Now that Alberta is debt free and has gone through a significant boom, we expect that Alberta will have the highest quality public services in the country. We deserve it.

Reacting to plummeting energy prices by slashing funding will only jeopardize our future prosperity.

Our long term prosperity is dependent on developing creative and critical thinkers who are committed to working together to solve the problems of society. The only way to build that citizenry, is through a world class public education system, where students have the supports and opportunities to develop to their full potential.

Education funding cuts puts that future at risk! Now is the time to make the wise investments, the ones that will pay off for years to come. The future is so uncertain – we need to do everything possible to ensure that Alberta is ready for it.

As a concerned Albertan, I urge you not to cut funding for our schools.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Teghtmeyer
Edmonton

If you care about the future of education in Alberta, and the future of Alberta in general. Take 5 minutes and send your own message at www.stopthecuts.ca

Inspiring Education and religious fanatics: not what you might expect.

So, I come to my computer this evening to make a post, after a fair hiatus, about Inspiring Education. Rusty to the process, I mistype the address into the explorer bar and end up at http://www.blogpsot.com/. It didn’t take me long to determine that I would have to include my stumble onto this site as part of my post. But I’ll get there later…

Now, anyone who was at The Inspiring Education Fall Forum knows that Bridget Ryan has the uncanny ability to use every conjugation of Inspire known to man. And, they also know where education should go over the next 20 years.

The big question is, how will we reconcile the fact that everyone leaving Northlands today had a slightly different image of that future?

First off, the team and everyone involved needs huge commendations for putting together an incredible environment where Albertans could get hopeful about our future and the potential we have as a society. It was about building the society of our dreams by ensuring that our children grow to their greatest potential. It was inspiring and there were some fabulous things said.

But we need to be clear, there was no synthesis of ideas from table to table and there were no ratifications of ideas or suggestions. There was no collective voice of Inspiring Education developed.

This is not a criticism of the process, it is merely an observation of the outputs. An important observation.

Over the next few months we are going to be in the process of rewriting the legislation that oversees education in Alberta. There is going to be a great deal of talk about what the system should look like and who should be doing what and how they should do it.

Beware the advocate who says that “Inspiring Education told us ___________.”

Even (or perhaps especially) if that person is from the Government of Alberta or, for that matter, the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

As valuable, authentic and informative as the process was, it was not a decision making body and it wasn’t a referendum on policies – and that is exactly how it was intended. Government is not about to allow itself to be fenced in by what Inspiring Education said, and therefore nobody should be able to use it as a mantle to hang their own biases or agendas.

In the end, the process did exactly what it should. It gave people an opportunity to dust off their binoculars and peer into that perfect world down the road and to feel confident talking about what their vision for education in Alberta is, which is what these next few months are all about.

We need this dialogue and the government still needs to hear your thoughts, because some one needs to counter the more radical points of view out there.

The Untold Angle on Education Cutbacks.

Full disclosure. I work in communications for the Alberta Teachers’ Association. I have been very deliberate about maintaining a distinct line between what I write here and the work I do for my employer. Having said that, I really enjoy working for the ATA because the organization generally reflects my values and aspires to create the same Alberta I envision.

With that out of the way, the topic of today’s post is the state of public education in Alberta.

I have expressed concerned in the past about how the Alberta government lacks planning for our future, those concerns are growing rapidly. My concern is that government is going to proceed next year with massive cuts to our education system.

While Hancock is hesitant to quote a number, credible estimates range between $215 million and $400 million. A common number referred to takes the $2 Billion reduction needed government-wide, multiplies it by the 17% of spending that the province devotes to education and arrives at $340 million in cuts to K-12 classrooms in 2010/11. This level of cuts could see the system losing 2000 to 3000 teachers, resulting in significant increases in class size.

While many stories have been written in regards to these cuts, one story flew under the radar because it wasn’t labelled as an education funding issue, although it most undoubtedly is.

A love of children draws hundreds of new people to the teaching profession each year in Alberta, but there has been growing concern in both professional and government circles about the number of new teachers who, for one reason or another, stop feeling that love and leave the classroom after a few years.
More than 20 per cent of Alberta teachers leave the job within their first five years, workforce statistics compiled by the provincial government indicate. The problem is particularly evident in northern and rural areas.

Please, take a moment, read the story and come back for further analysis.

Here is my reason for dire concern. Of the up to 3000 teachers being laid off next year, most of those will be teachers with temporary and probationary contracts. These teachers tend to be younger and newer to the profession. These teachers are passionate about their work and their students, but they also worry about their own wellbeing and are considerate of the demands of the job and limitations on being able to meet the needs of all of their students.

If you take a group that is already leaving the profession in considerable numbers and lay a large portion of them off, it is quite likely that many of them will leave the profession or province completely.

Now, let’s consider the long term implications. Sophisticated demographic models developed by government are already predicting a dire shortage of teaching staff in the next five to ten years. This will be mainly caused by very high fertility and immigration rates, combined with an outflux of retiring teachers.

So not only will the cutbacks affect classsizes, but they will also ensure astronomical levels of attrition in the teaching profession. And, as Alberta education director of workforce planning Randy Clarke is quoted, “There is evidence that with high levels of teacher attrition, students struggle academically.”

So, what value do Albertans get out of slashing public education and laying off scores of teachers who will be desperately needed in five years? Teachers needed to meet the demands of the system that will educate the next generation of leaders in our province? How is this planning for the future?