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Posts Tagged ‘Fraser Institute’

EdSpendingFraser2021

Some things in education return, year after year, like clockwork. So the dawn of 2021 produced the latest iteration of the Fraser Institute’s perennial report on “Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada. Everyone in Canadian K-12 education attuned to public policy, from coast-to-coast, knows what to expect as regular fare from one of our most conservative, cost-conscious think-tanks.

Public spending, so the narrative goes, is invariably excessive, wasteful, and spread around without much focus on meeting targeted needs. Spending more on public education does not produce better student results and, in the case of the Maritimes, spending rises while student enrolments have declined over the past five years. Those regular monitoring reports also come complete with supporting statistics –in the form of data, bar graphs, and tables.

Flipping through Fraser Institute reports, you can almost hear provincial education ministers, superintendents, and educators muttering something to themselves: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” That’s a rather snide comment about the persuasive power of statistics, and particularly the kind used to mount or defend weak claims and arguments. While often attributed to former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), the phrase originated much earlier and only came into popular usage from the 1890s onward.

That was the phrase that first popped into my mind when reading the recent Atlantic Canadian spinoff from the Fraser Institute report for 2021. “Spending on public schools in Maritime Canada on the rise, despite largest declines in enrolment nationwide.” So read the Nova Scotia media release produced by Tegan Hill and Alex Whelan. What, one might wonder, is new about that pattern?

A year ago, the Fraser Institute 2020 report on Education Spending was mostly a yawn because it did beat the same old drum. Spending on public schools was up by 9.2 per cent per student from 2012-13 to 2016-17, a five-year period, and student numbers had dipped a little, by from 2 to 3 per cent in the Maritime provinces. Looking closer at the numbers, however, those increases averaged 1.8 per cent a year overall, and, at most 2.4 per cent a year in Nova Scotia. Throughout the period, it might be added, Nova Scotia consistently ranked 7th among the provinces in per-student spending, reported at $13,135 per student in the final year, 2016-17. Student enrolment in N.S., over the final year, actually began to edge upward to 118,566, province-wide.

The most recent Fraser Institute report actually did say something new and that may get lost in the whole debate, waged – for the most part—by ideologues holding fast to fixed positions. Something began to happen in 2017-18 that changed the trajectory of education spending in Nova Scotia and, to a lesser extent, in New Brunswick.

EdSpendingFraserNS2021

Total spending on Nova Scotia public schools, the 2021 Fraser Institute Report found, increased from 2013-14 to-2017-18 by 19.0 per cent to $1.7 billion, an increase of $279 million. Student enrolment did drop slightly over the five years by 1.7 per cent, but that was not the big story. Instead of ranking 7th among the provinces in education spending per student, it now ranked fourth at $14,726 per student. That’s well above the national average of $13,798 in 2017-18.

More was being spent on Nova Scotia public education and student performance, measured on international, national, and provincial tests, has plateaued or slightly declined, like many other provinces. It’s difficult to be definitive because, since 2015-16, provincial tests have routinely been reformatted, postponed or cancelled altogether, making it difficult to reliably track student results. That’s a recurring pattern and one that renders problematic the usual claims of declining standards.

What’s really new in Nova Scotia is the recent cost drivers for education spending. Two major program initiatives with infrastructure costs, Inclusive Education ($15-million per year since 2017-18), and Pre-Primary Program expansion/completion (2016-17 onward), are factors and produce recurring expenditures, mainly in the form of new education sector jobs. From 2017-18 onward, some 449 new positions have been added in K-12 education.

Few question the wisdom of moving forward with Inclusive Education for learning challenged students and universal Junior Primary for 4-year-olds, and those cost pale in significance when considering the real cost drivers in the extraordinarily high recent Nova Scotia education spending increases, all in the pension, benefits, and contract services domains.

Human resources costs represent the largest share of total education expenses, but under the public sector wage restraints, salaries and wages remained at or below the cost-of-living. Supply and services costs, including contracted work, reached $394 million in 2017-18, representing 22,9 per cent of all expenditures. Together, the employer share of pensions and fringe benefits totaled $324 million, up significantly over the previous five years.

Pension and benefits costs incurred by the K-12 system are running well ahead of all other expenditures, averaging more than 10 per cent increases per year. Carrying a monumental provincial liability, defined benefit education pensions cost $91 million to sustain in 2017-18 (representing 5.9 per cent of all spending) and addressing the problem continually gets deferred by the government and the education unions. Back in 2017-18, employee fringe benefits, including retirement allowances, were 13.5 per cent of all expenditures, double the national average, and up 31 per cent over five years.

Capital spending in K-12 education is hard to track because so much of the procurement and spending is financed over long-term financing arrangements. Some provinces simply report the annual costs paid in principal and interest on long-term contracts, disclosing only the annual carrying costs to the system. In the case of Nova Scotia, the provincial budget for 2020-21 will absorb $265.6 million in costs for capital projects. The deferred financing will cover the cost of renovating 16 schools and for the purchase of 16 Public-Private Partnership schools from developers at the conclusion of 30-year lease agreements.

Conservative business and public policy tanks are prone to “cry wolf” when wading into the regular waves of government spending, particularly in K-12 education. It would be tempting to dismiss the Fraser Institute’s 2021 Education Spending report on similar grounds. That would be a mistake, given the recent surge on Nova Scotia education spending, commencing before we were all hit with the pandemic.

Why are education policy reports from business-oriented think-tanks like the Fraser Institute routinely ignored or brushed aside in Canadian K-12 education? Why does so much education reporting and analysis focus almost exclusively on trumpeting new programs proposed to meet every conceivable need and boasting of dozens of new hires? Do human resource costs in K-12 education escape critical scrutiny? Who’s monitoring and overseeing rising human resource costs, particularly pensions and benefits? Should such dollars be focused more on meeting student needs in the classroom?

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One of Canada’s provincial premiers, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, has waded into the Catholic Separate School question and brought the issue of school choice, once again, to the fore.  In Late April 2017, he announced that, in direct response to a recent Court of the Queen’s Bench decision in the controversial Theodore Catholic School case, the province would be invoking the Charter “notwithstanding” clause to support the right of non-Catholics to attend the province’s Catholic schools.

A tiny local dispute, as is often the case, erupted into a  full-blown debate over the right of parents to choose the best school for their children.  It was sparked by the decision of 42 multi-denominational parents in the village of Theodore, fifteen years ago, to resist a public school closure and instead create a Catholic School Division and open their own publicly-funded Catholic school.

Premier Wall staked out his ground in defense of the right of parents to school choice encompassing public, separate and faith-based schools. It was a courageous decision given the complexity of the issue and the passions aroused by the Catholic question in public education.

Sorting out such a thorny educational-constitutional issue should not be left to the lawyers because it has far-reaching implications for parental school choice far beyond Saskatchewan.  That is why The National Post invited me to take a much closer look at the whole controversy.

The court decision to end funding for non-Catholics to attend such schools had great potential for massive disruption. Some 10,000 students and their parents province-wide were left in limbo facing the prospect of being forced out of their Catholic schools.

The Saskatchewan Catholic schools dispute is, for better or worse, a critical “test case” that may well determine the fate of the Catholic school option in Saskatchewan and perhaps elsewhere. It’s also about far more than the funding of Catholic schools in that province. School choice in Saskatchewan, as in Alberta and Ontario, rests, in many ways, on having parallel public and separate school systems, both in English and in French. Such options, freely accessible to everyone, provide more choice than is commonly recognized.

In spite of what look from the outside like uniform bureaucratic structures and curricula, such denominational and language options do allow for variations, particularly in core philosophy, academic focus, and student discipline.  One out of five Saskatchewan students (21.1 percent), 22.9 per cent of Alberta students, and 30.3 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, principally Roman Catholic schools, in 2009-10, the most recent data.

Separate religiously oriented schools within the public education system not only offer choice but a measure of competition. Students and parents can opt for schools with provincially-approved religious instruction as an alternative to the predominantly secular, non-denominational public schools.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where the religious walls have recently come down. In many Catholic school districts across the three provinces, the relaxing of strict religious expectations and admittance of non-Catholics (or students of different faiths) has effectively expanded the range of choice, since such schools are no longer available exclusively to more religiously oriented families.

CharterSchoolCalgaryGirlsAlberta is hailed as Canada’s undisputed leader in the provision of a wide range of school choices. A February 2014 Fraser Institute report only bolstered that claim by demonstrating that Alberta offered six different publicly-funded options: regular public, francophone public, separate Catholic, separate francophone, separate Protestant, and charter schools.  The report’s principal author Jason Clemens noted that “Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system.”

Next to Alberta and Ontario, Saskatchewan offers the most school options: regular public, public francophone, separate Catholic, and separate Protestant schools. The continued vitality of one of those options is imperiled by that Theodore school court decision.

School choice should not be simply taken for granted. The vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have only one real choice. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of the total student population. About 2,600 First Nations students in Nova Scotia (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK) schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Public fears about charter schools in Alberta are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order— and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Under that province’s  1993 Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. Safeguards do need to be built-in to prevent a mass exodus and to provide some recourse in the case of under-performing schools.

Putting a stop to the removal of non-Catholics who have chosen to exercise their option of choosing an alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ system is not only defensible, it’s advisable, especially in Saskatchewan. One can only hope that it derails any movement to further restrict parental choice in education.

What’s causing all the ruckus over the Saskatchewan separate school question?  Who gains when provinces move to “one big English language system” for all? How fundamental is the right to parental choice in Saskatchewan as well as Alberta and Ontario?  Should non-Catholics continue to have free, unimpeded access to Catholic separate schools?  Wherein lies the danger of broadening the range of choice in our provincial school systems? 

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A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives  for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards.  Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.

HattieBookCoverMaking the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education.  It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.

Two critical questions arise:  Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students?  And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part,  to student performance levels?  The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.

Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.”  While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom.  The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.

Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.”  Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.

HattieAchievementVarianceWhat really matters in influencing and determining student achievement?  Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching.  School leadership, resources, and supports represent  about 20 % of the variance.

Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute.  Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.

The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards  and tied, in part, to student performance data.  Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of  jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.

Here’s how it works.  Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of  professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader.  You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards.  Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.

The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder.  In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level.  Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.

Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda.  Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems.  In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams.  Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.

What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools?  Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder?  If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity?  How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?

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