Alberta setting the stage for privatization efforts

“Linking some portion of funding to school boards achieving strategic outcomes desired by the ministry might create more alignment across districts, promote greater collaboration and lower school board administrative costs,”

So says a recently released report penned by former Saskatchewan finance minister, Janice MacKinnon.  Mackinnon was hired by the United Conservative Party a few months back to look into Alberta’s financial situation. MacKinnon made a total of twenty six recommendations on how Albertans can work their way out of their current economic woes, citing a number of key issues, including health care, capital spending, and of course, education.

The report contained five recommendations specifically focused on that particular portfolio, two of which looked at the K-12 system. The first was that Alberta adopt a model whereby school funding be connected to student outcomes (read: standardized test scores) rather than student numbers. The second was that the government reduce costs by seeking to “Decrease the percentage of government funding that goes to K-12 administration and governance.” (Read: goodbye elected school boards.)

Connecting school funding to student performance is nothing new. When George W. Bush was President, he instituted an educational program called “No Child Left Behind” which tied school funding directly to school performance. Schools were rated on their test scores, and were expected to improve these test scores year over year. If schools did not improve, they were subject to sanctions and could be closed and ultimately replaced, in some cases, by for-profit, privately run charter schools.

When Obama became President, there was hope that this hyper focus on test scores would be reduced. Unfortunately, his policy, “Race to the Top”, went even further, targeting teachers. If class test scores did not improve each year, a teacher could be fired.

Now, arguably, a math teacher’s job is to teach math; it makes sense that they be held accountable for doing so correctly. If a baker can’t bake a cake, then they presumably should not be baking. The baker, however, does have some distinct advantages in this analogy.  Measuring the baker’s capacity in cake creation while changing the ingredients might be more appropriate. Give the baker whole wheat flour versus all purpose and the outcome is different. Pass the baker a bag of salt from time to time instead of sugar, and the comparison becomes a bit more clear, if less palatable.

This type of argument is often made by those of us who wish to explain some fundamental truths about our job. Our ingredients, certainly, are constantly changing. But there are more than metaphors to back up the fact that using student test scores to evaluate either schools or teachers simply does not work.

A few years back, the American Statistical Association, (yes, that is a thing) released a report overwhelmingly condemning the use of these “Value added models” (VAMs). Just last year, the findings of an extensive project by Bill and Melinda Gates connecting teacher evaluations and salaries to test results were released. The Gates foundation discovered this approach did nothing to improve graduation rates, nor did it help with teacher retention, the two main goals of the project. Time and again, the model has simply not worked.

So, if we know that tying school funding to student performance will not improve outcomes for students, why is anyone suggesting it? Particularly in Alberta, which has consistently out performed just about every other jurisdiction in the country in standardized test scores. Indeed, Alberta’s recent performance in one international assessment was a major contributing factor to our country being dubbed an “Education Superpower.”

Well,  it’s not about the kids.

Here in Canada, we are witnessing the spread of an ideology the likes of which I do not believe we have ever seen. The theories behind this ideology can be traced back to the 1950’s and a gentleman named Friedrich Hayek. At the time Hayek wrote two essays which were subsequently published in Reader’s Digest. The essays essentially argued that since socialism had given rise to Fascism, a case could be made that the world should move away from social, collectivist ends towards a more individualistic, market based system. If there was no competitive market in a particular system, it was the role of governments to create the conditions under which one could be developed. Thus, the neo-liberal movement was born.

The movement may have died there, except for a millionaire named Anthony Fisher. Fisher was an avid Reader’s Digest fan, and when he read Hayek’s essay, he was inspired. He met with Hayek and proclaimed that he was going to get into politics, an idea that Hayek dismissed. “If you really want to change the way people see the world,” said Hayek, “you must open a think tank!”

I am paraphrasing, obviously. But that is exactly what Fisher did. He established the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in 1955, and then helped establish The Fraser Institute in 1974. Since that time, the neo-liberal doctrine has been spread far and wide, offering market based solutions to all manner of issues. One of Fisher’s legacy projects is a group called The Atlas Network, which now boasts a partnership of over 500 think tanks world wide, all created for the sole purpose of spreading the neo-liberal gospel . Of its 13 Canadian affiliates, 5 are based in Calgary.

This is why the Alberta government is now trying to convince Albertans that tying student test scores to school funding is a good idea. If they can label a certain school as “failing”, then they can justify giving that school less money. With less money, the school will continue to decline. Eventually, it will have to close, creating a perfect opportunity for the opening of a for-profit charter school. Thus, the government will have created the conditions by which a competitive market will exist where one did not before.

Buckle up, Alberta. Your public education system is about to become privatized.

And if the Alberta system falls despite its consistently strong showing, the rest of us will  undoubtedly not be far behind.


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Filed under charter schools, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education