As the ice finally starts to come off of the lakes and the grass finally begins to emerge from the mounds of snow, Nova Scotians can begin to hope that spring may finally be here. And in this province, there are several key indicators that we look for each year to tell us that we may have turned the corner on the damp and cold of a North Atlantic winter. First are the crocuses, which often poke their heads through stubbornly dying snowbanks, carrying with them a splash of colour and a hope of brighter days. Then there are the robins, who seem to become more plentiful and active as the weather warms ever so slightly, bouncing with easy joy on even the smallest patch of green lawn. And then, finally, there is the annual spring attack by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) on public education, with its muddying of the waters and filling of the air with shrill and sometimes hysterical voices.
Ah, yes, spring in Nova Scotia is certainly a grand and glorious time.
But this spring, I have found myself wondering about the true purposes of our annual harbingers of warmer weather. No, not the birds and the flowers. They at least make sense. But AIMS? Well, that’s a bit of a head scratcher.
For quite a number of years now, AIMS has been using its position of local “think tank” to undermine the public’s faith in teachers and to push its vision for schools in the province. This vision has consisted almost entirely of a call for more choice in schools for parents and the creation of charter schools. And about once a year they bring in an expert from outside the province to float the idea of charter schools to the public. Last year around this time, AIMS brought in Manitoba school teacher and author Michael Zwaagstra. Zwaagstra, who had been granted the title of “Fellow in Commonsense Education” by AIMS, wrote about charter schools in the Chronicle Herald declaring “Declining student enrollment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province…[Nova Scotia] should… pass charter schools legislation.” I, of course, responded.
This year’s annual attempt to undermine public education and push the charter school agenda came in the form of two reports, both available on the AIMS website. The first was a poorly researched attempt to call into question teacher qualifications and evaluations in Nova Scotia. It was such an obvious attempt to create hysteria and hype that the Minister of Education actually spoke publicly about its lack of validity. The second came from yet another Manitoba author by the name of Rodney Clifton. Clifton, a Research Fellow from the Frontier Center for Public Policy also had, for some odd reason, an opinion on the viability of charter schools in Nova Scotia. Citing what is known as “Baumol’s curse” Clifton complained that although the Consumer Price Index in Canada increased by 25.5% from 1999-2000 to 2010-2011, some provinces have seen expenditures in education increase by as much as 96.9% over the same time period. Cost per student expenditures have risen as well, with Newfoundland and Labrador seeing an increase of 111% over the time period, the largest increase reported.
Good for Newfoundland.
This is not a new argument for Clifton, who has used the same argument to call for a decrease in health care spending and to, apparently, complain about admission prices to Performing Arts events. And although I might argue that higher costs are simply a symptom of schools doing more for kids, it is in Clifton’s suggestion of how this “problem” might be solved where the real issue lies.
In his report he ultimately suggests that the best solution to the rising costs of education would be to have schools compete against each other for students, using standardized test results as a measure of excellence. Clifton summarizes his argument thus;
“Parent-controlled funding [for schools] would also force schools to concentrate on objective, measurable, outputs, notably standardized measures of academic achievement. As a result, we would get schools that focus on teaching and learning that are essential for obtaining informed, enlightened, skilled, and employable citizens…students would be tested and the results would be published so that excellent schools attracted more students while low-performing schools withered and closed.”
Since standardized tests have a tendency to favour students from upper socio-economic backgrounds, (as well as having many other negative impacts) one does not need an education degree to extrapolate which schools would flourish and which would “wither and close”. As well, it should be recognized that the ability to transport kids to more “excellent schools” is again the purview of those folks who can afford to do so. It would take a certain amount of personal wealth and security for a family from Spryfield to transport their kids to a “better” school in, say, Sackville. Furthermore, there is little consideration in the report of the geographic realities of Nova Scotia. For example, the entire county of Richmond, my home town, is serviced at the senior high level by a single school. Finally, what would happen to the kids who were serviced by the schools that “withered and closed” is seldom, if ever, discussed.
In his acknowledgements, Clifton takes the time to thank last year’s AIMS author of choice, Michael Zwaagstra, for his help with the report.
Given these obvious arguments against the idea, one wonders why AIMS would like to implement charter schools and school competition based on standardized test scores in this province. One motive may simply be financial gain. One of the ways that organizations can make money off education is through the standardized testing process, and several AIMS members are well positioned to take advantage, given the opportunity. For example, Angus MacBeath, AIMS Fellow in “Public Education Reform” is also a superintendent of an educational consulting company called Focus on Results, a firm that “specializes in results driven improvement methods”. A quote from their website claims “At the end of the day, all that matters is showing quantifiable results, and ours speak for themselves.” In short, the company MacBeath works for makes money by helping schools get better at teaching to and taking standardized tests.
I also can’t help but wonder, if charter schools are such a great way to improve public education, why is it that AIMS has to bring in authors from, of all places, Manitoba, to promote the idea? Why can they find no one of any credibility from the local education community to support their views? Certainly they have some academic clout, as they count at least three University Presidents among their members. Why do we never hear their voices? Where are their position papers attacking teacher credibility, like we have recently seen from AIMS? What is their opinion of charter schools?
And, finally, why such a focus on this particular model? According to its website, the AIMS Education and School Reform Initiative is the organization’s largest project. But even as AIMS takes public positions that are not particularly teacher friendly and are decidedly anti-union, they must realize that the majority of teachers (all NSTU members) working in this province are women. And every year the profession continues to draw highly educated, highly motivated and highly capable women to its ranks, while many other areas struggle to do so. This trend of low female engagement is mirrored by AIMS itself, which is tremendously light on female members. In fact, their 17 member advisory council is made up entirely of men.
Not only are women drawn to the teaching profession, they regularly rise to positions of power within the system. The DEECD, the School Boards, and, yes, even the NSTU all have women hired, elected and appointed to their top rungs. Yet many versions of the charter school model allow for less benefits and lower wages to be paid to teachers. So when considering all the various models available that purport to be ways to improve upon education, one has to wonder why AIMS chooses to promote one that sees a reduction in wages and benefits for this often under-represented group of Nova Scotians.
AIMS continues to promote itself as a non-partisan think tank that “…provides a distinctive Atlantic Canadian perspective on economic, political, and social issues.” Yet as they continue the attempt to undermine public education, one wonders if AIMS’ promotional sentence should not stop at their mention of economics. Certainly, it seems the only lens through which AIMS views any social issue, including public education.
Yes, spring is here, and as always, the birds from AIMS are singing their usual spring song.
One has to wonder, however, what, exactly, they are singing for.