Beyond Education as Usual: Public Education in a Post-COVID World 

Beyond Education as Usual: Public Education in a Post-COVID World 

A report on the IPE/BC Fellows Forum by Moira Mackenzie

COVID-19 is a mirror, and the flaws in many of our institutions are being reflected back to us. The pandemic has created the most significant disruption in education we may have ever seen, revealing much as this virus has taken over our lives.  What has happened that is worth keeping, what is worth exploring and what has failed?

This is the challenge put to the panel addressing the annual Fellows Forum on February 27th.  Rising to the occasion were panelists: Julia MacRae, an experienced teacher with a Masters in Curriculum Studies and 1st Vice-President of the Surrey Teachers’ Association; Jamie Smallboy/Nohtikwew pisim, a Langara student in Aboriginal studies, dedicated advocate, Cree mother of five and survivor of residential schools and the 60s Scoop; and Bryn Williams, veteran teacher and administrator, currently a principal in Coquitlam and Executive Director of BC Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Julia, Jamie, and Bryn were all clear that a return to “normal,” as it was pre-pandemic, was neither possible nor advisable. COVID-19 has compelled us to refocus.

Looking back to last March, Bryn recalled worrying about whether the resilience of students, teachers and parents could sustain itself for the long road ahead. However, even with very difficult challenges, shared leadership and strength have grown, with everyone working together in support of students, families, and the community. “This embodies what public education is all about- that it’s for the common good,” said Bryn. His hope is that distributed leadership with connections to community continues to flourish, post COVID-19.

Jamie lauded the care that teachers at her children’s school take to connect with students, knowing that family circumstances vary greatly. “What’s amazing is that my children are nurtured body, mind and spirit; it doesn’t matter what’s going on in their external environment, their school is welcoming,” she said. Contrasting this with her own deeply traumatic residential day school and public school experiences, Jamie strongly advised all schools to uphold this commitment. Bryn agreed, speaking to the value of focusing on the whole child and of trauma-informed classrooms where students can count on understanding, empathy, and wrap-around support.

Correspondingly, Jamie called for the public funds spent on private schools to be redirected to supports that are necessary for children’s well-being but not currently available in public schools.  “I’ve seen so many children shut down before they even begin because they’re overwhelmed with everything they don’t have and everything they’re expected to accomplish in competition with children who have always had opportunity, privilege and a stable home.”

For Julia, it is paramount to consider the injustices laid bare by this pandemic. Many students are dealing racism and inequity in their communities and grief, fear, tragedy, worry, and job loss in their families. In turn, teachers have been creating deeply meaningful lessons and making space for discussion of these real-life issues, reinforcing the important role of public schools in social justice.

Will there be a lasting impact on teaching, learning and the curriculum? Again, the panelists advised against simply going back to the way things were.

Jamie urged recognition of the Indigenous world view in schools, noting that Indigenous people are keepers of knowledge fundamental to the creation of a compassionate, harmonious society and to the planet’s very survival. She highlighted the need to recruit more Indigenous teachers and welcome Indigenous elders into classrooms, and expressed her concern that an over-emphasis on academics means that children are missing many of the basic life skills needed to survive and live in harmony with others.  “We’re teaching kids to be scholars; we’re not teaching them to be community members,” she said.

Julia noted that teachers have definitely been advancing the new curriculum in these times. The professional decision-making, choice and innovation required by the current circumstances are aligned with the tenets of this curriculum. Teachers have been creating, curating, and sharing excellent teaching resources, exercising their judgement both of necessity and in deep commitment to their students.

What about the heavy reliance on technology?

Bryn drew attention to the huge divide within communities when it comes to equipment and access. There are many ways to use the technology to enhance in-person learning and meetings, attend to engagement, and provide flexibility, but equity must be addressed.

“Every teacher sees the difficulty in it now and every parent sees the limitations,” said Julia. She noted that attendance at virtual meetings and workshops is high, but there is a passivity that comes with engaging online. “There is something about the physicality that leads to memorable professional development experiences and enhances the way we learn and make decisions together,” Julia observed.

Sharing a warning,  Jamie said, “During the pandemic, I’ve seen how much time teachers spend with our children. They are a huge part of their lives. I’ve also seen how desensitized our children are becoming because of technology. These children will grow up with Google as their moral compass.  If society continues to accept technology over humanity, we’re in serious trouble.”   She concluded, ” There seems to be less humanity within the walls of the rooms where decisions are being made for children, and that is discouraging fact”.

Many more perspectives were shared; the time flew by and the value of the dialogue was clear.  Now, the challenge for all of us is to continue the discussion.

The central role of education, and especially public education, in the economic, social and political life of British Columbia is more obvious than ever and understood more fully by the general public. The pandemic has shone a bright harsh light on so many vulnerabilities and exacerbated already unacceptable inequalities. While no one would have wished for this societal trauma, we want to consider how to capitalize on the centrality and essential role public education plays by thinking big to envision change in these unprecedented times.

Moira Mackenzie is a member of the IPE Board of Directors, former BCTF Executive Director, and retired elementary school teacher.

Privacy concerns for students using cloud computing

 

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Warning: Privacy concerns for students using cloud computing

By Larry Kuehn

The pandemic has surfaced concerns to which we should long have attended but mostly ignored. One of those is the dangers to the privacy rights of our students posed by cloud computing in our schools. Moving education online for several months has exacerbated these, and the use of technology will continue to expand, even as students return to physical classrooms.

Now an explosive report shouts for us to pay attention while there is still a chance to address the dangers to privacy. It is called “Troubling Clouds—Gaps Affecting Privacy Protection in British Columbia’s K-12 Education System.” The analysis was done by Matthew Levine for the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA). It is particularly timely, with its emphasis on Google’s role in education in the context of the U.S. anti-trust investigation of Google.

The report is available at https://fipa.bc.ca/category/libraries/publications/publication-topics/privacy/

Cloud computing is an all-encompassing aspect of much that we do these days. It is the processing and storing of many of our online activities carried out over the internet, all on server farms that hold the data in a few centers globally, with very few of those in Canada. An increasing number of educational activities are carried out digitally, largely on the cloud.

While online activities raise privacy concerns in the digital lives of all of us, privacy should be a particular worry in relationship to children. Privacy is not only a key element of freedom, but key to the development of autonomy as a person. Young people need the space to explore and develop, without the pressure of surveillance that will affect them the rest of their lives.

The FIPA report looks not just at concerns raised by cloud computing, but also details the use and impact of a particular platform—Google Education, used in many B.C. school districts. Google Education includes the familiar gmail, docs, and the like, but also “Google Classroom.” This is a “learning management system” providing for creating an online classroom, exchange of assignments, and maintaining a record on each student as well as facilitating communication with parents.

All these are necessary aspects of teaching, and Google Education apps and Classroom are “free” to cash-strapped school boards. What could possibly be the problem?

In the era of “surveillance capitalism,” the users of a “free” service (our children) are actually the product, producing data that is the basis of the creation of value and economic return. Google is the biggest player in this market. Google promises that it will not use student data to target ads to them, but it does not identify the other uses for the data. The data from hundreds of millions of students around the globe using Google Classroom—it is available in multiple languages—gives Google the largest collection of data on education which can be used to develop future products—data not available to researchers or educators.

That is the big picture concern. The FIPA report also outlines more specific concerns for individual students. BC legislation aims at protecting privacy and includes provisions that personal data not be held on servers outside of Canada. This is protection against invasive access provided by legislation elsewhere, particularly the U.S., where most data are held—although this protection was waived by Ministerial Order during the pandemic.

This is a concern not just about Google, but also about the many of educational apps and services that are available—both “free” and for a charge—that could be available in our classrooms. All these services, including Google, have user agreements and privacy statements that claim to inform. However, anyone who had tried to read one will know how difficult it is to make sense of what will actually happen with one’s data.

School districts recognize that many of the practices with education apps and the cloud do not meet the conditions required in privacy legislation. Their approach is to ask parents to sign an authorization that in effect waives the privacy rights of their child.

This is not good enough. When a parent signs an authorization, they are expressing trust in the school system to look after the interests of their child as they use these technologies in the cloud. The system is failing to live up to that trust in many of the practices in using technologies in education.

The FIPA report calls for action. The province needs to take responsibility for providing services—it already has infrastructure and expertise that should be available to the education system. The Privacy Commissioner should provide more guidance for the system on complying with the legislation and draw on international expertise available.

School districts should do privacy assessments on all services used, as well as provide training and support to teachers. Above all, they must seek valid, informed and meaningful consent from individuals, i.e. students and guardians, for use of any tools that may compromise privacy.

The protection of privacy is crucial in our increasingly cloud-based education environment.

Larry Kuehn is retired as Director of Research and Technology at the BC Teachers’ Federation. He is a member of the Board of the Institute for Public Education and a member of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of BC.

 

Public School Programs of Choice: Private School in the Public System?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Public School Programs of Choice: Private school in the public system?

by Tara Ehrcke

The 21st century has, so far, seen the great up-ending of one of the most fundamental tenets of public education—that all children, regardless of background or socio-economic status, should be able to reach the same educational end goal. This concept of equality of outcome was intricately tied to the notion that society provided, or should provide, for social mobility. One could improve one’s station in life because public institutions, such as public education, were grounded in what we would now more commonly refer to as equity. The system, rather than doling out resources equally to all children, would rather apportion them so as to ensure that those starting with a disadvantage had the opportunity to catch up.

The neoliberal turn of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has instead brought us back to the more basic and enduring features of capitalism. Institutions, rather than mitigating inequalities, are instead exacerbating them. Within schooling, this obviously takes shape clearly in the private versus public provision of schooling. But, even within the public school system, a great many features serve to further stratify children according to race, class and gender. We see aspects of private schools directly within public schools.

One such feature is school choice. “Choice” takes place in a variety of ways: the open catchment areas; allowing and increasing public funding of private schools; allowing school fees; and promoting niche schools and academies. With only limited opposition (from parents, teachers and school trustees) “choice” policies have changed the nature of BC’s public school system. The impact of these changes is that we are moving from a more comprehensive, equitable, neighbourhood and community oriented, publicly administered school system, towards a semi­private, stratified and segregated system in which precious limited resources are increasingly allocated to a privileged minority.

Parents can be easily swayed by these calls: How could school choice be a bad thing? How is wanting the best for my child making things worse for public education?

Teachers, administrators and school board trustees can similarly be entranced by school choice initiatives. They see opportunities to offer new and alternative programs that otherwise wouldn’t be supported. Or more likely, they see their existing programs cut and school choice policies the only method to try and maintain them. With fee structures, they see the chance to have properly funded programs. With dwindling support and resources from the basic Ministry budgets, these policies can appear to be the only way to keep such programs running.

But sometimes what seems or even is best for one child or one group of children is not best for all children. And what appears to be saving an individual program is in fact fundamentally changing the nature of the school system.

School choice exists in British Columbia in a variety of forms. All catchment boundaries are now open, or semi-open, allowing parents to register in a school outside their catchment area. French immersion, perhaps the longest running, largest, and most entrenched program of choice, is now commonly known as “the private system within public schools.” Immersion programs are notoriously unfriendly towards struggling learners. Children with challenges typically cannot receive special education services in French, and are often advised to switch back into the English stream.

Yet another form of school choice is the Academy, or niche program. There are sports academies, and arts academies, but also academic academies such as International Baccalaureate programs, honours programs, and challenge programs. These specialty programs often have competitive enrolment processes, and often require the payment of school fees (typically $2000 – $5000, but as much as $17,000/year). Thus, they are available only to a small subset of students.

Data from the Vancouver School Board verifies the low number of students with an IEP, who are English Language Learners, or who are Aboriginal within the Vancouver Board school choice programs.

Source: VSB, Freedom of Information request number 2014­25

Research on school choice programs generally finds that access to choices varies in relation to socioeconomic status, and that choice tends to have the effect of stratifying along socioeconomic lines. Parents who have more social capital will exercise their rights to choose. They are the ones able to pay additional fees, drive across town, or wait in overnight line­ups. Often, they are simply the parents who know about the choices and the ways to access them.

When these parents access special schools and programs, they are choosing a demographic that matches their own, and thereby reducing the diversity of the schools and programs they have left.

Even the rather conservative Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) acknowledges what the research shows:

“School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms in education allows equal access to high quality schooling for all. Expanding school choice opportunities, it is said, would allow all students – including disadvantaged ones and the ones attending low performing schools – to opt for higher quality schools, as the introduction of choice in education can foster efficiency, spur innovation and raise quality overall. However, evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation.
…
Although parents may be concerned about equity and integration and may support their neighbourhood school, they seek at the same time the “best” education for their children… Parents with a better­ off background tend to avoid schools with a significant number of disadvantaged students and research suggests that parents prefer schools with populations ethnically similar to their own family… All these elements contribute to socio­economic segregation between schools.”

A genuinely public school system includes equal opportunity for all members of the public. Schooling must be common, collective and universal; equity must be a guiding principle.

To restore equity in public schools, we should focus on these goals:

  1. Advocate for fully funded comprehensive neighbourhood schools with a full range of programming at every school, available to every child
  2. Eliminate school choice policies including open catchments, niche schools/programs, program fees, and streaming
  3. Eliminate all private funding: subsidies to private schools, fundraising, corporate and other private donations, and school and program fees

A longer version of this article published in Our Schools, Our Selves is available here.

Tara Ehrcke is a high school math teacher in Victoria and Past President of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

By Larry Kuehn

The exposés of abuse by social media corporations like Google and Facebook have finally brought attention to the dangers of monopolies over our communications. The way these monopolies have been colonizing public education has, however, gone almost unnoticed. This is rampant privatization sneaking in as essential to “21st Century learning.”

The top five global capital corporations are technology platforms—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Platforms are a host for a variety of services and uses. All of the big five platform corporations have become too large in a short period of time to have any significant competition outside of this group. They compete against one another, adding services to secure their monopoly by offering users everything they do online.

If a new service is developed that seems to be gaining users, or that competes with an element of their platform, it is purchased and integrated into the platform—avoiding new competitors. Alternatively, they use their massive resources to develop a comparable app and push the potential competitor aside.

Snicek, in Platform Capitalism, points out that the development of these monopolies “introduces new tendencies within capitalism that pose significant challenges to a post-capitalist future.” Building public cooperative platforms becomes an impossible dream.

No surprise—these platforms have moved to colonize education. Public education represents a big chunk of potential revenue. Just as importantly, schools are where one can find most of the future potential consumers and users of the platform services.

Colonization is a process where a significant force moves into an area and dominates. It takes over not only the production and resources, but imposes—often by stealth and power—the processes and approaches and even values of the social and cultural environment. And, dominate is what the monopoly platforms are on track to do in public education.

The most successful colonizer has been Google. A recent report indicates that Google’s G-Suite for Education is being used by half the teachers and students in the U.S. Canada is fast approaching the same level of use. It includes a range of free software tools that can be used by students and teachers—word processing, presentations, spread sheets and the like. G-Suite incorporates “Classroom,” an integrated learning management system that keeps track of grades, attendance and more. And, of course, YouTube is linked to student use.

New elements are added frequently. “Google Sites” is promoted for student e-portfolios, because “every student should publish for the world.” Google acquired Workbench, integrated with Google Classroom to give “lessons connected to a variety of ‘maker’ activities focused on STEM.” It is part of Google’s plan to “help schools and educators address their universal needs around education content.”

Google, rather than democratic public institutions, therefore shapes what is on offer. Google’s position as colonizer is strengthened by the hardware increasingly used in schools—the Google Chromebook. It is less expensive than other computers because much of what it needs to operate is supplied by Google in the cloud—operating software, applications and memory. No need to build those into the computer.  According to market reports, Chromebooks make up the majority of all computers sold to schools in the U.S. and are marketed globally.

However, one must have a gmail account to use these Google tools—so if a parent wants to protect the privacy of their child and refuses a gmail account that kid is left out while the rest of the class works away on their Chromebook and other Google tools. (See here the kind of consent form parents are asked to sign, giving Google access to acquire and store student information outside of Canada.)

Google has even taken up teaching “internet safety,” with a program aimed at reaching 5 million students. Its core is a game for students in Grades three to six to teach them to avoid “schemers, hackers and other bad actors.” However, as critics point out, it doesn’t talk about privacy concerns when users’ personal information and actions are tracked online. Google conveniently ignores its role as a “bad actor.”

A Swedish study of Google’s strategy concluded that “By making an implicit demarcation between two concepts (your) ‘data’ and (collected) ‘information’ Google can disguise the presence of a business model for online marketing and, at the same time, simulate the practices and ethics of a free public service institution.”

In “The Weaponization of Education Data,” Audrey Watters points out “the risk isn’t only hacking.  It’s amassing data in the first place. It’s profiling. It’s tracking. It’s surveilling.”

Google isn’t alone in the business of colonizing education and student data—just the most successful so far. One competitor is Microsoft 365 Education, with a promise of “empowering every student on the planet to achieve more” and that it will “unlock limitless learning.”

It’s not an accident that it is “Microsoft 365” that is being pushed. It offers a cloud-based software and cloud storage for your work. It is the new business model for Microsoft: they don’t sell you software, you rent it—and you keep paying for it. And your work isn’t saved on your own computer, so you have to keep up your subscription. Like Google, they are hoping that students will keep using their tools when they finish being students.

Microsoft is imitating much of what Google offers, but by charging for the service rather than trading it for data. It offers apps, educator training and STEM lessons “to enrich science, technology, engineering and math classes.” They offer “budget friendly” Windows 10 devices with licences for Microsoft 365 Education.

The other major tech corporations have programs as well. Apple, for example, was the first into education with the Apple IIe and the “Apple Classroom of Tomorrow” way back in the 1980s. More recently it depended on the ease of use of the iPad, despite its cost, to sell classroom sets along with Pearson curriculum in an ill-fated project with Los Angeles schools.

Venture capitalists are hoping to find the magic app that will make a fortune. The potential market is indicated by expenditure of hundreds of millions each year on developing new products. The “winners” are likely to be bought up by one of the major corporations—or find their product idea taken by the monopolies.

Not enough attention is paid by education authorities or researchers to the shaping and distortion of education that is possible—even likely—by this colonization of education by technology monopolies.

Larry Kuehn is an IPE/BC Fellow, IPE/BC director and Director of Research & Technology for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. 

Are Private Schools Better than Public Schools?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Are Private Schools Better than Public Schools?

Perception Versus Reality

By E. Wayne Ross

Last year the BBC ran a story with the headline “How Canada Became an Education Superpower.”  The BBC pointed out that Singapore, South Korea and Finland usually get mentioned as the world’s top performing education systems, “but with much less recognition, Canada has climbed to the top tier of international rankings.”

Whenever the OECD releases the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA) results, breathless reporting usually follows. There are many reasons to be skeptical of international rankings based upon a single test given to 15 year-olds.

Despite its international “superpower” status, a majority of Canadians don’t believe their public schools measure up to private schools. Less than seven percent of Canadian students attend private schools, but the majority of Canadians believe private schools provide a better education than public schools. In a 2012 Ipsos-Reid poll, 58% of respondents stated they believe private school education is better than public school education; 63% said they would send their children to private schools if they could afford it.

In British Columbia, there has been a 12% drop in public school enrolment since 2000. Meanwhile private school enrolments have increased from nine percent in 2000 to 13% in 2017, almost double the national average (Source: FISABC).

Between 2000–01 and 2016–17, the full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrolment in BC independent schools increased from 57,462.7 to 81,180.6. This is an increase of 41.3% (Source: BCTF)

So, if more parents in Canada and BC are choosing to send their children to private school is this an indication that private schools are really better than public schools? Not necessarily – indeed the research evidence suggests the answer is “no.” I will come back to this point in moment, but first let’s explore the conventional wisdom that private schools are better than public schools.

In BC, key factors that coincide with private school enrolment increases is an historic era of labour conflict, budget cuts, school closures and overcrowding in the public school system from 2000-2016.

Another factor related to increased private school enrolment is marketing. Extensive marketing campaigns touting a private school advantage cannot be underestimated.

In addition, while BC public schools were under a funding siege for the first 16 years of this century, private schools were enjoying significant funding increases and a wealth of positive (and free) press from publication of school ranking schemes, which consistently placed private schools at the top.

Between 2000–01 and 2016–17, funding for BC independent schools increased by 95.9%. This is larger than student enrolment increases by 54.6%, and larger than funding increases for public schools by 90.0%. (Source: BCTF)

All of these factors feed the idea there is a private school advantage.

But, reality is more than appearances and focusing exclusively on appearances—on the evidence that strikes us immediately and directly—can be misleading. This is particularly true when we examine school rankings because private schools’ higher average test scores are at the heart of the conventional belief that private schools are better than public schools, along with their typically well-funded programs.

Anyone who scrolls through the rankings of BC schools will find evidence that students who attend private schools have better on average academic performance than public school students. But the key question is to what degree do private schools actually produce those results?

There is a growing body of research evidence that attempts to answer this question.

In 2011, OECD’s analysis of PISA results found that while students in private schools tended to outperform their public school peers, the difference was primarily the result of the higher socio-economic status of private school families.

“Students in public schools in a similar socio-economic context as private schools tend to do equally well,” according to the OECD report, which concluded that “there is no evidence to suggest that private schools help to raise the level of performance of the school system, as a whole” (OECD, Private schools: Who benefits?)

In their 2013 book, The Public School Advantage, University of Illinois researchers Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski found that compared to private schools students, public school students performed the same if not better on achievement tests once demographic factors were taken into account.

Statistics Canada echoed these findings in a 2015 report, which found students in Canadian private schools have more educational success than their public school counterparts because of their socio-economic characteristics, not because of private schools themselves.

The StatsCan report identifies two factors that consistently account for differences between public and private school student academic outcomes. “Students who attended private high schools were more likely to have socio-economic characteristics positively associated with academic success and to have school peers with university-educated parents … School resources and practices accounted for little of the differences in academic outcomes” (Statistics Canada: Academic Outcomes of Public and Private High School Students: What Lies Behind the Differences?)

And, in a study published last month, University of Virginia researchers Robert C. Pianta and Arya Ansari examined the extent to which enrolment in private schools between kindergarten and grade nine was related to students’ academic, social, psychological and attainment outcomes at age 15. This longitudinal study of over one thousand students concluded:

“… children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the socio-demographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated.”

In addition, Pianta and Ansari found no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools, benefited from private school enrolment.

Are private schools really better than public schools? Conventional wisdom may say they are, but the evidence suggests that is a myth.

Parents send their children to private schools for a variety of reasons that make sense for them. But, there is substantial and growing evidence that there is no value-added in private school education.

For more research-based resources on private schools see “Resources on Private Schools” by National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.

What do we teach while the world is burning?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

What Do We Teach While the World is Burning?

by Lizanne Foster

I usually spend August thinking about what I’ll do when I’m back at school again in September but lately all I can think about is 48 C rain. I keep wondering about what lessons would prepare my teen students for a world where hot water falls from the sky, where oceans are too warm to cool nuclear reactors, and when road surfaces  from India to the UK keep melting.

What kinds of skills will be needed in order to thrive if a domino effect of deforestation and thawing tundra turns our planet into a hothouse?

I suspect that knowing how to parse a sentence or how to solve for x aren’t going to be essential skills in such an environment.

But what will be?

I’d be willing to bet that teachers in 1918 were confident that a liberal arts curriculum would prepare students to fit socially and economically into a rapidly modernizing, industrializing world. An essential skill then was probably a sensibility to not stray too far beyond the boundaries of conformity while thinking critically about established ideas in literature, math and science. For most of the 20th century, high school graduates who had mastered this skill could look forward to decades of socio-economic rewards.

But is this skill still enough for students who will graduate into the third decade of the 21st century?

What do my 15-year-old students need to know?

Certainly there’ll be discussions about the socio-cultural impacts of artificial intelligence and the economic outlook for a “world without work,” but I’m not quite sure where in our curriculum we’ll be addressing living in a world where new colours have to be added to weather maps to display unprecedented heat.

Should we be teaching them how to recover after wildfires or rising seas have destroyed their homes?

Should they consider how they’ll respond to the millions of migrants whose homes will have become “the mouth of a shark” as the poet Warsan Shire so eloquently describes?

A century ago a few teachers may have encouraged teens to question militarism in the aftermath of The Great War but any suggestion that relentless economic growth would lead to millions of deaths and an uninhabitable planet would likely have resulted in a referral to an asylum. After all, the age of mass consumerism was just beginning and there were all those newly electrified gadgets to buy.

Any day now the back-to-school ads will be popping up on screens everywhere. We’ll keep being reminded to buy, buy, buy. The tragic irony is that we have created an economy that is utterly dependent on consumer confidence and yet it’s mass consumption that is leading us to a new norm of rain that falls at 48 degrees Celsius and rivers too warm for salmon to spawn.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it? When our education system is a product of, and is sustained by a consumerist society, is it hypocritical to challenge conformity to consumerism?

What role do teachers have in the necessary transition away from our fossil-fuel dependent economy?

Within the next 24 months, my Grade 10 students are going to have to make choices about future education and careers. What should they know about how their lives may be affected given that many experts are predicting that the “oil bubble is about to burst“?

Does my teaching role include preparing my students for a post-consumer society? Can we actually return to a time when we were known by our “societal roles (parents …doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters),” not just by our roles as consumers or customers?

I don’t know.

What does one teach when the world is burning?

Lizanne Foster is an IPE/BC Fellow and a secondary teacher in Surrey.

Inequality and International Student Tuition

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Inequality and International Student Tuition in BC School Districts

A just released BCTF Research Report, International student tuition income increases—and inequality grows, authored by IPE/BC Fellow Larry Kuehn describes the increase in international student enrollment in BC schools, resulting in a substantial increase in resources for schools in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

The policy has been a success in an economic sense. International education is the third highest “export” from BC, behind only forestry products and minerals. Education—K–12 and post-secondary—is considered an “export” because it brings in income from across borders for tuition and living expenses. However, given the way it is structured, the increases in tuition revenue also increase the inequalities.

A few report highlights:

  • Eleven school districts (out of 60) received 73% of the total funds in 2016–17: 10 districts in the Metro Vancouver area and the Victoria area.
  • International student tuition is generally $15,000 for an academic year, twice what BC provides for each Canadian student.
  • West Vancouver and Coquitlam school districts benefit the most from international student tuition revenue.

Tuition from international students was promoted by the previous administration to increase financial resources during a period of government austerity policies. The question now is how the inequality this revenue stream has created will be addressed in the future school funding formulas.

Click here for the full report.

Navigating Educational Technology

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Navigating Educational Technology

by Vis Naidoo

In 1998, Shafika Isaacs and I introduced the concept of the value chain for the use of technology in school education. We reviewed various projects in South Africa at the time and noted that unless key elements of the education system are functioning at a basic minimum level, no matter what technology is thrown at it, we would not attain the expected learning outcomes and improve quality. We stressed the need to focus on education and not on the technology and be strategic about how we use it to enhance learning in schools, universities and other spheres of life.

Two key research conclusions about the impact of educational technology are:

  1. Technology itself cannot improve learning and instruction but it is the effective use of technology that will see better education impacts.
  2. Technology developments will continue to influence and change our lives, the way we work and live. It will also change the education landscape.

Technology on its own cannot improve education systems and require other elements to be functional and focus on the effective use of technology. Yet our education systems continue to invest in technology, often based on what seems to be the latest and greatest. How do we address this so that the education system can achieve the results we expect with current and innovative technology developments? How do we avoid our education becoming too influenced by the latest technology development and ‘carpet-baggers’ peddling the latest technology with promises to revolutionize education?

Perhaps a good starting point is to have an agreed understanding of educational technology. I draw on the research work commissioned by DfID where they define edtech as ‘the use of digital or electronic technologies and materials to support teaching and learning.’

For education technology to have an impact is to enable its effective use. Technologies have and will continue to emerge and offer new possibilities to impact learning and teaching, enable large-scale support of learning leading to improvements in learner progress and quality of education. For this to take place the policy environment, school management, digital content and teacher development are important. The report on the impact of educational technology notes the following:

Therefore, useful research on the impact of educational technology should focus on the complete system, including the teacher, the content taught, the technology used, the school system or environment in which the teacher is working, and the environment in which the learning is taking place.

I have developed a framework to consider when looking at ICT integration and use within the school system. Based on this framework, it is useful to consider the following questions to determine what constitutes an effective and cost-efficient edtech program:

  • Is this within the policy framework of the country/province and does it help to advance the strategy leading to the achievement of the national/provincial goals, including the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)?
  • What are the learning outcomes, how is the curriculum structured and where will technology be used to enable learning and the achievement of outcomes?
  • What learning support materials and technology will be used?
  • Is there an effective teacher development and pedagogy focus so teachers are able to use technology to improve their teaching methods?
  • What evaluation methods will be used to determine the value of the edtech program and whether it supports the achievements of the outcomes?

When determining the educational technology that will best work for schools, perhaps it is important to note the criteria that will hold the edtech companies to greater accountability. Any edtech purchased needs to have effective support for teachers and their professional development, so there are no further fees required for this. Of course, having the education product developed with the central involvement of teachers is another imperative that helps to deliver relevant learning materials and methodologies in edtech programs.

When choosing an edtech products or services, it is important to understand how these will be used and the kind of after-sales customer service available. This helps ensure it is easy to install and use and there is an effective support to troubleshoot and address system-level problems. Once a purchase of a product or service is made, there should be no need for further purchases to make the edtech tools work.

There is increasing evidence of the value of edtech in support of attaining educational outcomes, the impact on teaching and learning and changing the way learning is taking place. Further evidence is required to understand ‘what difference was made to the educational experiences of the teachers, students, and communities involved.’ This further illustrates the need to ensure the design and implementation of edtech programs are carefully planned to improve educational quality and collect data and conduct analysis to determine the impact.

See also:

Power, T., Gater, R., Grant, C. and Winters, N. (2014). Educational Technology Topic Guide. The Health & Education Advice & Resource Team (HEART) with funding from British Government’s DfID.

Vis Naidoo is an IPE/BC Fellow and education technology expert .

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

by John Malcolmson

People concerned about Vancouver’s speculator-driven rise in real estate costs might have been encouraged to see the NDP government impose a special property surtax on high cost houses in last month’s provincial budget. This tax is estimated to raise $50 million in the current fiscal year.

Obviously, anything that makes the well-heeled pay a little extra or tames profit-taking in the housing market should benefit the push for increased affordability.

Of particular interest is that monies raised by the tax are earmarked for the public schools. After all, our hard-pressed school system can use all the funding support it can get, right?

It is useful to pause and consider the underlying facts with property taxes. The BC School Act mandates that all school property taxes raised in the province are to be used to fund public schools. But will the extra money raised in Vancouver, where most $3 million+ valued homes are located, go to the beleaguered District 39?  Not a chance. This is where the story gets interesting.

For years Vancouver has raised more property tax than is needed to fund its budget because school property tax tracks assessed property values not school expenditures. What this means is when all Vancouver taxes are counted and the value of homeowner grants to School District residents is deducted, the District brings in more money than is required to fund its entire provincial grant. In 2015, the district raised $447 million in property tax in support of returning provincial school grant payments of $434 million, a surplus of $13 million. The current surplus is likely higher than 2015 because of the past two years’ rapid run-up in city real estate prices.

This is a curious because the provincial government controls tax rates applied to the various classes of property and residential rates are specific to each district. The province could tweak rates further down in a revenue surplus district like Vancouver to reduce the take and bring tax receipts back into balance with what is needed. But it doesn’t.

The net result is that “surplus” taxes raised in Vancouver are shipped to other districts around the province to subsidize their budgetary requirements. This is because the provincial government controls and fixes the size of budgetary allocations to BC’s sixty school districts. There is no more room for additional property tax dollars in the Vancouver school district budget because the District already overfunds its budget. Paradoxically, layering another property tax onto upscale city real estate will only make the current imbalance worse. Because the overwhelming majority of new surtax revenue will come from Vancouver, this is very much a revenue measure that singles out the city, its school district and its property owners.

(See here, for this analysis of Provincial Property-based Taxes in the Metro Vancouver Region prepared by Cascadia Partners.)

How can this problem be solved?  Returning property tax control to each district may sound like a solution, but it is not. Property tax assessments are unevenly distributed in this province and giving control to local districts would be a retrograde step, one that would move BC in the direction of many American jurisdictions where the gap separating rich and poor school districts is wide. For obvious reasons, we do not want a situation where some BC districts can raise new taxes this way and others simply cannot.

A real solution would be to abolish property taxes earmarked for school purposes, or at least the residential property taxes which currently account for close to 40% of total property tax receipts. There is no good reason to maintain a tax levy created a century ago when districts lacked access to other sources of revenue. Today, districts have recourse to the provincial budget and the province is responsible for properly funding our public schools. School property taxes on residences are an anachronism that should be done away with.

Most, but not all, Canadian provinces still rely on property tax support because changing tax systems is difficult and runs the risk of unsettling local governments and taxpayers. Nonetheless, BC has an opportunity to break new ground here in efforts to reform public school finance.

Another real benefit in this proposal is that it could allow local governments in Vancouver and elsewhere to access tax room for other priorities. Our local governments are perennially starved for funding to support important transportation initiatives or the development of low cost housing. Both are key to the development of livable and affordable cities.

Property taxes used to be a keystone of public school finance in this province. Now they are an important revenue base held hostage to an antiquated system. The province needs to accept its responsibility for fully funding all schools equitably, and local governments need the revenue tools to fix urgent problems that threaten urban affordability and livability. Both problems could be addressed through this needed reform of the school property tax system.

John Malcolmson is an IPE/BC Fellow and was formerly the CUPE K-12 sector research analyst.

 

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

by Joel French

Private schools do not need public funding. That could easily have been the title of the Fraser Institute’s recent report on private schools across Canada.

The data throughout the report certainly supports that conclusion, though of course it is never stated. Instead, the report, titled A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, reads like a marketing piece for private schools and is focused on dispelling a straw man argument that private schools are only for the “urban elite.” The report finds that nearly half of private schools are religious in nature and that many others are “specialty schools” with a particular curriculum focus, such as arts or athletics.

The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary.

Looking beyond this main focus, the report contains interesting information related to the public funding of private schools. It points out that only five of Canada’s 10 provinces provide any funding for private schools: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. Alberta funds its private schools at a higher rate than any other province at 70 per cent, while British Columbia has the highest percentage of private schools receiving public funding at 87.9 per cent.

The fact that only five provinces fund private schools allows us to analyze the impact that public funding has on those schools’ student enrollment, as well as the correlation between public funding and the number of private schools in each province. The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary. The level of public funding allocated to private schools has no direct correlation with student enrollment in private schools nor in the number of private schools in operation.

The release of the Fraser Institute’s report was accompanied by three province-specific statements for British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. The three provinces offer very different levels of public funding, so they provide a good sample to analyze the effect of public funding on private schools. British Columbia funds the majority of its private schools at a level of 50 per cent, while Alberta funds most of its private schools at 70 per cent, and Ontario provides no funding for its private schools.

The Fraser Institute has claimed that private schools save public money. This claim relies on the assumption that if public funding were to be removed from private schools, students from those schools would flock to the public system where their education would cost the public even more money. The problem is that their own data tells a different story.

Of the three provinces, the one giving the most public funding to private schools has the lowest private school enrollment. Alberta’s rate of student enrollment in private schools is 4.4 per cent, while British Columbia’s is 11.6 per cent, and Ontario’s is 5.6 per cent. So although British Columbia provides public funding at a rate 20 per cent below that of Alberta, its enrollment in private schools is more than double. And although Ontario provides no public funding at all to private schools, they have a higher enrollment rate than their Alberta counterparts. Clearly, the number of students attending private schools does not depend on the rate of public funding and can even be higher without public funding.

The number of private schools in the three provinces tells a similar story. Alberta has one private school for roughly every 28,000 residents, whereas both British Columbia and Ontario have one for every 14,000 residents. So the province funding private schools at the highest rate (Alberta) has half the number of schools per capita of the other two provinces. Less or no public funding evidently does not lead to fewer private schools.

If the biggest benefit to the public of having private schools is to save the public money, then the data in the Fraser Institute report points in an obvious direction. Instead of Alberta funding its private schools at a rate of 70 per cent, it could drop its funding to the British Columbia level of 50 per cent and save even more money. Or better yet, it could eliminate public funding for private schools altogether like Ontario, where there are more private schools per capita and a higher student enrollment rate.

The NDP government in Alberta has yet to follow through on three of the education-related promises in its election platform. It pledged to reduce class sizes and increase supports for children with complex needs, reduce mandatory school fees for things like lunch supervision and bussing, and fund a school lunch program for elementary students. The platform pegged the total cost of those three promises at $140 million per year, and the plan was to begin that funding in 2015. Last year, Alberta gave more than $200 million in public funding to private schools.

The Fraser Institute’s report, true to its purpose, paints a rosy picture of private schools in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In fact, its press releases for each province are nearly identical, with an equal amount of praise doled out to each province. Compare them yourself: AlbertaBritish Columbia and Ontario

Which leads to the question: if the private school situations in these three provinces are to be lauded in such a carbon-copy manner, why should public money be given to private schools at all?

Note: This piece was previously published in Ricochet July 19, 2016.

Joel French is Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta.