Archive for the ‘Costs of Public Education’ Category

Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

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Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails.  With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert  back-to-school disruptions.  Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.

OntarioTeacherProtestsA recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.

Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government.  A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000  to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.

Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.

While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia.  Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol.  Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint.  In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1)  totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).

The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table.  After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away.  That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’

Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.

Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.”  Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost.  Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.

Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems?  Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?

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The Fraser Institute’s Centre for Improvement in Education is stirring it up again in the normally tranquil world of Canadian K-12 education. The latest report, Education Spending in Canada: What’s Actually Happening? , released in mid-February 2015, returns to one of the Vancouver think tank’s familiar themes. While the popular news media outlets in Canada’s provinces are quick to report on every “education cut” or proposed “cutback,” public spending in the sector continues to rise as predictably as sun in the morning.

EdSpendingGraphicThe newest report, produced by Deani Neven Van Pelt and Joel Emes, was delivered with a rather provocative media release and an eye-popping infographic. Seizing upon the most glaringly sensational statistic, the Fraser Institute graphic artists depict the rise in “nominal spending” from 2001-2 to 2011-12. Seeing that “public school spending” rose from $39.9 to $59.6 billion or 53.1% while enrollment dropped across all provinces by 6.2% is hardly news. Learning that per pupil spending over that decade also rose from $7,250 to $11,835 or 63.5 % is enough to raise your temperature.

The Fraser Institute, for the uninitiated, is to Canadian education what Greenpeace is to the environmental movement. Setting-off emergency flares is the West Coast think tank’s stock-and-trade.  Like most of their reports, it’s important to cut through the sheen of pure free market analysis to get at the real meat of the matter.  In this case, it’s the valuable work done in reconstructing the growth in spending per pupil, province-by-province, adjusted for inflation and enrollment. Those figures are less “sexy” but far more relevant for education observers and policy-makers. It is also what that national education ‘paper tiger’ CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, should be producing for public accountability purposes.

The overall growth in education spending in “nominal dollars” is hardly earth-shaking and it pales in comparison with rising costs in health care, not really properly acknowledged in the report. When compared with enrollment declines in every province except Alberta (up 5.4%), the provincial spending levels are worth noting. The reported Ontario spending level of $24.7 billion is staggering, especially when compared with 2001-2, when it was $15.2 billion, or about $9 billion less. It’s hard, however, to get worked up over PEI spending 51.3% more, bringing the total spending to a mere $236 million.

EdSpendingPerPupil2011Comparing provincial student enrollments with per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, produces some significant insights. Alberta’s student enrollment rose by 5.4%, and so did its K-12 education spending (up $1.5 billion or 37.0%). Declining enrollments from 2001-2011, hit a few provinces particularly hard without impacting much on their overall spending levels. Newfoundland and Labrador absorbed a 22% enrollment drop, and spending per pupil after inflation/enrollment adjustment declined by 3.1 %. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like two peas in a Maritime pod, spent 3.4% and 3.6% more to educate 18.2% and 16.5% fewer students. Without the absorption of Kindergarten into the public system, PEI would likely have demonstrated a similar pattern.

The Fraser Institute’s most potentially valuable findings are the estimates for provincial overspending on K-12 education in so-called “government schools.” Overall, Canada’s provincial enrollments declined from 5.36 million to 5.o3 million students, but spending still rose 15% after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.  All together, they also spent some $15 billion more than if they had contained costs to the adjusted levels, allowing for inflation and enrollment. In the case of Ontario, enrollment dropped by 5.5%, but the Ministry of Education spent 15.8% ($2.4 billion) more ( in real terms) to educate 120,000 fewer students.  The Ontario overspending figure is double the total cost of educating Nova Scotia’s 125,500 students.

British Columbia teachers will be intrigued by the Fraser Institute study’s findings.  Comparing the new figures with the BCTF’s “Fair Deal” graphs shows how data can be manipulated to prove almost anything in education.  The new Statistics Canada figures for 2011-12 tend to show that the BC government has taken a “tougher line” and made gains in closing the gap between declining enrollment and spending levels. While BC student numbers plummeted 11% from 622,800 to 550,700, spending was contained to a 19.3% increase (or a 5.4% increase after inflation and enrollment adjustment). Salary and wage restraints affecting teachers explain how BC was able to break the cycle of escalating education costs so evident in Alberta and Ontario.

What the Fraser Institute study does not do is answer the big question – why do education expenditures (nominal, per pupil, and adjusted) continue to rise while enrollments decline? It is possible, however, based upon provincial research studies, to isolate three of the leading cost increase components.

First and foremost, salary and wage settlements for teachers and support staff, representing at least 75% of all recurrent education expenses and guaranteeing step increments to teachers in their first 10-12 years of service.  Second, provincial class size policies, particularly class enrollment caps, which — if poorly administered — result in overall much lower PTRs and smaller classes over time.  And finally, the growth of Special Education expenditures (once 15% of the budget, now as much as 20%) driven by the “student supports” philosophy and the trend to providing EAs in many more regular classes.

The key K-12 education cost inflators are much easier to identify than to analyze and assess, especially in the absence of a national education accountability office charged with such a public responsibility. Nor is there much definitive evidence that any of these relatively costly policy measures correlate positively with improvements in student engagement and achievement or preparedness for a productive, fulfilling life.

Why do Education Spending levels continue to rise in the face of overall declines in student enrollment? How credible are the Fraser Institute findings that compare “nominal spending”, province by province, over a ten year period? What is the real utility of the comparative figures for spending per pupil adjusted for inflation and enrollment?  To what extent are the main spending escalators “fixed costs” and, if so, is it possible to develop a spending model more closely aligned with improvements in student engagement and performance?

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Public education in all of Canada’s provinces, with the exception of Alberta, seems to be entering a new “Age of Austerity.” Education is front page news with headlines screaming some familiar lines: Budget Cuts! Teacher layoffs! Bigger classes!  With Education Cuts on the agenda and shrinking enrollments in many provinces, it’s not surprising that parents are worried about the impact on their children’s schools.  The current “Austerity Drive,” exemplified by Don Drummond’s Ontario report on Public Services (February 15, 2012), has also put the critical question of class size back on the public agenda and sparked intense debate, particularly  in Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba.

Former bank economist Don Drummond addressed the matter of Class Size and contended that class size reductions are costly and do not significantly improve student learning.  http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/reformcommission/chapters/ch6.html#ch6-f  As a key component of his Education Restructuring Plan, he urged Ontario to revisit the 2003 Class Size Reduction Initiative and to  increase class size without compromising student learning:

The critical passage from the report explains the reasons for that recommendation:

The [Ontario] government has emphasized the importance of smaller classes in promoting improved education outcomes. Since 2003, the government has maintained that smaller classes yield better results through greater teacher-student interaction. In its “2011 Progress Report,” the government said that “[s]tudents in smaller classes get more individual attention from teachers and other educators, helping improve literacy and numeracy and are more likely to succeed.” Indeed, Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes.

“Empirical evidence of the benefit of smaller class sizes on education outcomes presents a more complicated picture. A review of Ontario’s primary class-size policy by the Canadian Education Association notes that class-size reductions typically yield at least modest quality improvements, but questions of “what size class is ‘small enough,’ how and why reducing class size works, and under what conditions it works, are all under-explained.” Research by the C.D. Howe Institute suggests that “no solid evidence exists to show that smaller classes improve student achievement in the later primary and secondary grades in Canada.”

“International evidence of the educational benefit of smaller class sizes offers similar conclusions. Studies have suggested that positive and negative impacts of class sizes were observed in the same proportion of classes (14 per cent each), while nearly 72 per cent of results showed no statistically significant impacts. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that “[a]mong systems with comparatively high levels of spending on education that prioritize small class size, performance patterns are mixed.” This evidence suggests that small class sizes are not a key determinant of educational outcomes, and certainly small class sizes alone are an insufficient measure to achieve these outcomes

“The debate over the impact of smaller class sizes continues to this day, with conflicting conclusions and no definite outcome. However, evidence suggests that, in terms of value for money, investments in lower class sizes do not provide the greatest possible benefit. The PISA finds that “raising teacher quality is a more effective route to improved student outcomes than creating smaller classes.” Similarly, the C.D. Howe Institute notes that resources devoted to class-size reduction could have a greater impact if reallocated elsewhere in the education system.

“While it is true that Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes, there is no evidence of causality. Even if the reduction of class sizes had some impact on outcomes, the evidence suggests that investments in smaller classes do not offer the most efficient means of improving results in the education system.

“Given the lack of convincing empirical evidence to support a policy of reduced class sizes, the Commission believes that scarce resources should not be applied to this goal.”

The Drummond report’s call for larger school classes flatly rejected the Ontario Ministry of Education-financed research of Dr. Nina Bascia (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) widely disseminated by the Canadian Education Association. http://www.cea-ace.ca/publication/reducing-class-size-what-do-we-know   Little wonder, because those studies all start with the assumption that “smaller class sizes are an intuitively good idea” and are primary based upon opinion research, drawn mainly from teacher surveys and samplings of parental perceptions. You will also find the OISE “Small is Good” research dutifully posted on the People for Education website.

Teacher unions are in the forefront in the defense of class size reductions. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), representing 78,000 teachers, continues to staunchly defend the OISE research, while recommending significant cuts to Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. http://www.etfo.ca/Publications/BriefstoGovernmentAgencies/Documents/SubmissionJan%202012.pdf   Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson reacted strongly to Drummond’s report targetting his proposal to increase class sizes. “What does an Ontario economist know about class size?” he asked in a March 5, 2012  Opinion piece for the Winnipeg Free Presshttp://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/what-does-an-ontario-economist-know-about-class-size-141397833.html

Most of the education research in support of Small Class Size is decidedly mixed and Drummond’s analysis is reasonably sound.  Yvon Guillemette’s research report for the C.D. Howe Institute, released in August 2005, remains the most authoritative Canadian study. http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_215.pdf   That report does tend to support the claim that reducing class sizes below 20 in Kindergarten and Grade 1 does make a difference for student achievement, but noting — that’s where it stops. “Many provinces are spending millions on class size reduction initiatives,” he concluded, “with no solid evidence that they raise student achievement. The money could better be spent elsewhere.”

Class size research in the United States simply confirms these findings. Education columnist Andrew J. Rotherham, the widely-respected c0-founder of Bellwether Education, claims ( Mar. 3, 2011, TIME.com) that “smaller isn’t always better when it comes to class size.”  Two Harvard NBER researchers, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer,  have now analyzed 35 New York charter schools, allowing greater flexibility in terms of school structure and strategy., and confirmed that class size made little difference, compared with new performance criteria. “Frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explain approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.”  http://nber.org/papers/w17632

Reducing school class sizes was once touted in most Canadian provinces as a kind of panacea, urged on by teacher unions.  After a decade or more of implementation, targeting the elementary grades, the independent research is now coming forward.  What is the real advantage of smaller class sizes — and who really benefits?  Where’s the sound research to support lower class sizes above Grade 1 or Grade 3 in Canadian schools? When it comes to class sizes and student performance, why is it that smaller is not always better?

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Back to School ads signal the start of an annual family shopping spree. Shopping expeditions begin in early August, as parents with kids in tow hit the stores to attack long lists of school supply ‘must haves,’ fall clothes, the latest sports gear and mobile electronic devices. It is the second biggest consumer spending season of the year, putting a strain on family budgets and causing hardship for parents struggling to make ends meet. Across North America, the cost of heading back to school is escalating, and parents are finding out the hard way.

The average Canadian family with school age children, according to a recent poll conducted by VISA, will spend $403.89 on back to school items ($240 of which spent online), between August 1 and Labour Day. Some 34 per cent of shoppers start in the first two weeks of August, but most families find themselves rushing around when back to school shopping amounts to a frenzy. http://blogs.todaysparent.com/saving/what-does-back-to-school-cost-you/

Many Canadian families in tight economic times are struggling with back to school costs. A recent post in Today’s Parent (August 3, 2011) entitled “What does back to school cost you?” touches rather lightly on the critical issue. The author “Sandra” describes shopping for her two school age daughters at Mountain Equipment Co-op only to discover that last year’s backpacks have gone out of style! For families like Sandra’s the rising costs are an irritant, but for thousands of Canadian parents finding the money for such expenses means running up credit cards or doing without.

Why are more and more families dreading the Back to School merry-go-round of shopping? The cost of going back to school is rising each year, and so are all costs for “school supplies” and “incidentals” being borne by families in public schools as well as independent and alternative schools. A Back to School CBC Radio News program (Information Morning, August 16, 2011) identified the issue squarely and demonstrated how it adds to the stresses of family life.

It’s a problem that originated in the 1980s, as school boards sought to download costs for school supplies on parents and compelled many teachers to supplement their classroom supply budgets. Successive waves of edu-cuts have imposed more costs on families. One of the major drivers is charging kids to compete in sports or play in the school band, now known as the “pay-to-participate” or “pay-to-play” model of funding a whole range of extra-curricular activities. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43856978/

Hard pressed families from Toronto to Calgary, from Youngstown, Ohio, to Denver, Colorado, and all over Ireland, are raising alarm bells about the soaring cost of school basics. In Youngstown, WKBN TV, ran a news story ( August 12, 2011) using Huntington Bank statistics claiming that from 2010 to 2011 costs went up $56 for elementary kids, $136 for middle school, and $91 for high school. (www.wkbn.com) The Calgary Board of Education was concerned enough to post a Survival Guide of Tips entitled “Worried about the Cost of Back-to-School?” In some cities, the neighbourhood Walmart store actually has school supplies lists posted that came from local Boards of Education.

Most of the Back to School costs media stories offer practical family budgeting tips, but studiously avoid addressing the larger education policy issue.
Why are Back to School costs rising so rapidly? Should public schools and boards of education be off-loading the costs for back-to-school basics? How can school systems professing to provide “education for all” be justified in imposing unreasonable costs on families in disadvantaged communities? To what extent are school systems forcing Food Banks into the school supplies business?

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School boards across Canada are habitually crying poor and the local and national media are filled with stories about “education cuts” threatening to “devastate the system. ” When asked, where can cuts be made, school officials and teacher unionists respond with blank stares or proclaim, rather lamely, that there is “no fat” whatsoever in the system.

Money is tight in public education, or so we are told, when “educuts” are on the table. Potential cuts to administrative and classroom expenses are then openly debated, except when it comes to the matter of investing in computer technology. Why, I wondered, is Information Technology (IT) so sacrosanct?

Several months ago, Paul Taylor of the British Columbia firm Blue Curl, but based in New Glasgow, NS, contacted me with what seemed to be an outlandish claim. School boards could reap “major cost savings ,” he insisted, if they abandoned their current Information Technology (IT) policy and infrastructure, embraced “N-Computing” technology, and implemented “virtual desktops” on a larger scale. Not only would the education system dramatically cut costs, it would also greatly expand computer access points in our public schools. http://www.bluecurl.ca/

Almost everyone in public education circles seems to accept that putting computers in schools costs big money and IT would be the last place to look when cutting costs. Besides, promoters of the “21st Century Skills” curriculum simply assume that plenty of public-private partnership funding will automatically materialize for IT-driven school reform. Few Canadian educators are even aware of the divisive public debate raging in Detroit, Michigan, over “cutting teachers, while adding computers.” http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2011/01/budgeting-cutting-people-adding-computers.html

Desktop virtualization is not really new, but you would think so, judging from official response across the Maritimes. NComputing was founded by Californian Steven Dukker in 2003, and it now leads the world in producing virtual desktop computer devices. It greatly reduces the cost of computing by allowing multiple people to simultaneously share a single computer.

With the release of its new L300 model featuring enhanced video capabilities, the NComputing product has taken-off and sold 500,000 seats in the 18 months ending in September 2007. Since the, it has now been adopted by America’s largest school system in New York City as well as in California, Macedonia, Mexico, Nigeria, India, and all over the Asia Pacific. http://www.smbworldasia.com/en/content/ncomputing-cusp-changing-economics-it

While Nova Scotia is lagging, NComputing pilots are underway in New Brunswick’s District 16, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Prince Edward Island. Most of these small scale experiments involve retiring 10 aging PCs in favour of one much cheaper L300 virtual desktop system at a minimum saving of 50% per seat.

What’s behind the resistance within the system? Most school superintendents still depend heavily upon the computer experts in setting policy and defining the priorities. Many IT directors are “old guard” computer science teachers or techies. They not only tend to favour name brands like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Apple but are products of a system based upon segregated computer labs and restricting student access to the Internet on school property. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/education/tablets-netbooks-thin-clients-cheap-desktops-what-to-buy/4378

Many school boards have also grown dependent upon the Industry Canada model of distributing “hand-me-down” donated computers to the schools. That is why Nova Scotia has 60,000 computers in a system serving 127,000 students, many of which badly need replacement.

Blue Curl’s Taylor sells what was once called “thin client” technology and he puts it much more bluntly. “Many in the IT field, believe it or not, are wedded to the ‘fat client’ model, favouring products where parts break down and upgrades prove lucrative.”

Nova Scotia’s technology consultant, Wayne Hamilton, is typical of many educational techies. He’s known about “virtual desktops” for 7 years and has personally experimented with the NComputing product. Initially, he found fault with the devices, questioning the quality of the prototypes, software licensing costs, and the potential band-width challenges.

In a public system, saddled with hundreds of broken-down computers, Hamilton was spooked by use of “open source software” and the need to invest in better “parent” computers. Reducing the number of computers requiring servicing, also threatened jobs, posing another significant deterrent.
Adopting NComputing will save significant tax dollars. In the Chignesto-Central School Board, some 23,000 students now are served by 12,000 aging computers sucking tremendous amounts of electrical power. Implementing NComputing, Taylor contends, would cut IT costs by 50 per cent and save on power usage. Indeed, many schools could aspire to having carbon neutral computer labs.

Cutting “the fat” in educational computing is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Yet Taylor is one determined Nova Scotian computer salesman. After months of flogging his NComputing technology, cracks are appearing in the passive resistance. He takes heart from small victories in Northern New Brunswick, Cape Breton and Indian Brook First Nation. In school computing as in personal life, slimming down requires self-analysis, setting achievable targets, and sheer determination.

Back to the fundamental question: Why is a serious scrutiny of IT expenditures in public education rarely, if ever, undertaken? Do new innovations such as NComputing’s virtual desktop have the potential for significantly reducing the costs while maintaining or enhancing service? If so, why do senior bureaucrats and IT managers resist such initiatives?

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