Following the money in educational reform

A few days ago, the rather non-assuming Dr. Avis Glaze dropped what equates to an atomic-sized bomb on our public education system. Demonstrating a rather shocking lack of understanding of our current system, Glaze made a total of 22 recommendations of how our Nova Scotian Education system can be “improved”.

Now, to allow this magnitude of change to be driven by a document that has been shown to be flawed in any number of ways speaks pretty poorly of our provincial leadership. Many stake holders, from teachers to school board members to parents have been exclaiming complete disbelief that these changes are being adopted without being given due consideration to the damage they could possibly inflict upon our already fragile system. How could any government enact such sweeping changes without giving due consideration to the potential consequences?

Well, here’s a theory. And you may want to grab a cup of tea before we begin.

Let’s start this story with the somewhat “shrouded in mystery” Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). This organization, based out of Halifax, is one of several right leaning think tanks scattered across our country. These not-for-profits are usually involved in lobby efforts, generally on behalf of big business, to undermine public confidence in public sector institutions. AIMS is no different. Operating out of a small, unassuming office and funded by private donations, AIMS has launched publicity campaigns on everything from what it considers an over-inflated public sector to its current focus on allowing the private sector to take over government liquor stores and the distribution of marijuana.

They also have a keen interest in public education, but more on that later.

Although sounding impressive, AIMS employs a grand total of 4 people, at least according to the Canada Revenue Agency , and despite not seeming to offer any sort of service that could justify its status as a charity, the group received somewhere north of $600,000 in donations last year. That number has remained quite consistent for AIMS since at least 2012.

The list of people involved in AIMS reads like a who’s who of movers and shakers in the business world. These include the likes of John F. Irving, Don Mills, Scott McCain and, current director, John Risley. Now, that last name is of particular note here, because it is from him that we can get a real sense of the organization’s purpose. On the website, Risley spells out the mantra, if you will, of AIMS:

“…to hold government accountable for its size and activities; to be better at what it needs to be good at and to step aside from those activities that are best left to the private sector and market forces”

That idea of the government stepping aside for private interests is of particular note. In a 2013 article in Atlantic Business Magazine, John Risley, among other things, weighed in on the state of education in the province, stating in rather typical John Risley fashion “…we have the worst P-12 education system in the country. That’s not subjective. We have the worst goddamn math scores in the country!” (Author’s note: We don’t, by the way). He then went on to expound, essentially, that if the government simply allowed businesses to take the lead on education, then this problem would be fixed.

This brings us back to the education connection. Throughout its history, AIMS has always maintained a keen interest in education. One of the organization’s most common talking points over the past number of years has been the idea of “school choice”, or what are more commonly called, “Charter schools”. These schools are set up by private companies, with tax payer money, to offer an alternative to public education for parents. School success is measured by standardized test scores, and parents can review those scores and determine where to send their children. Since funding is measured by the number of students in a building, schools that do well see an increase in both enrollment and funding, and those schools which are determined to be “weak” fall by the wayside.

There are any number of issues with this model, not the least of which is that, by and large, it doesn’t work. Charters, in general, do not out perform public schools, but there is a perception that they are somehow “better”. This perception leads to affluent parents moving their kids to these schools. Charters sometimes offer voucher programs so that a certain number of poor students can attend the “better” school, but in the end, these measures are tokens. Public schools become more and more poorly funded, and charter schools, many of which have strict entry requirements or who charge large student fees, thrive, at least in the short-term.

Here in Nova Scotia, we do not have charter schools, primarily because, in general, our public system is doing a good job for our students. As well, most of us see the value in improving the public system, instead of pouring money into private ventures. If, however, you wish to advance the idea of charter schools, you must first convince the public that public education is failing.

Enter Paul W. Bennett.

Bennett has been connected with AIMS for about 10 years now, ever since he left his job as a headmaster of the Halifax Grammar School, one of Nova Scotia’s few private schools. Although apparently never having worked in public school, he has written and commented on just about every facet of public education, with the majority of his work criticizing the current system. These criticisms have often been shown to be based on inaccurate information and have drawn some rather erroneous conclusions. Probably Bennett’s most famous example of this was a report he authored for AIMS back in 2014 entitled “Maintaining ‘spotless’ records: Professional Standards, Teacher Misconduct and the Teaching Profession.

The report, co-authored by previous chair of the Ontario Teachers College, Karen Mitchell, made a series of recommendations for improvements to our system of regulating how teachers are certified and disciplined in the province. To get a sense of the overall inflammatory nature of the piece, one need only read the following introductory paragraph.

Certifying teachers and regulating the teaching profession is emerging as a critical public policy issue–and one that urgently needs addressing in the interests of students as well as taxpayers in Nova Scotia and a few other provinces. Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach can be particularly loose and mostly ineffective, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.

The report was littered with anti-teacher rhetoric, painting a picture of a system rife with poorly performing teachers not being taken to task for their ineptness. In the way of providing validation, the report used statements like “Judging from periodic news reports and school-level parking lot discussions, more than a few teachers should no longer be teaching. Many enjoy immunity by virtue of ironclad tenure…” to bolster the argument that change was necessary. Unable to provide any hard data to support these claims, the report relied on many such inflammatory generalizations to garner support.

This lack of understanding and any actual evidence led, not surprisingly, to the report containing several obvious errors. For example, the report stated “Professional development of teachers in Nova Scotia remains the exclusive preserve of the NSTU”, which is inaccurate. Most of that responsibility lies with the school boards. The report also called for the introduction of regular teacher assessments every five to seven years, when teachers are currently evaluated every three. Finally, it called for the re-assigning of the responsibility for teacher discipline from the NSTU to the Department of Education, apparently unaware that the responsibility for teacher discipline lies with schools boards. (Even the Minister of Education had to weigh in on that one.)

Despite these obvious problems, and their claims that “Our core research team and our internationally-recognized academic fellows employ the highest standards of excellence in every piece we publish; AIMS never offered a redaction on the report.

The AIMS report was widely forgotten, but the unsubstantiated claims it had made proved stubbornly hard to remove from the collective psyche. Time and again, helped along by the Bennett’s alarmist rhetoric, the ideas that schools were failing and that teachers were not being held accountable became a point of common misunderstanding. Somehow, many of the ideas proposed in the AIMS report, regardless of their validity, became part of an overall call for change in the education system.

These recommendations for change, driven by AIMS ideology, eventually permeated the governing Liberal party, of which John Risley is a supporter. This was evidenced in 2015, when then Minister of Education, Karen Casey, unveiled her “Action Plan” on education. In its pages were several recommendations on improving the system which echoed the AIMS report from the year before. Perhaps even more telling of the collective government buy-in was the wording of a resolution on abolishing elected school boards that emerged from the Liberal party’s 2016 AGM. In part, the brief supporting the resolution read:

WHEREAS as reported by Paul Bennett of Schoolhouse Consulting, “School board reduction or total elimination is on the public agenda as citizens see it as an obvious cost-saving measure. Regional or district school boards have become remote to most citizens and taxpayers….today’s elected School Board trustees are basically limited to advocacy and ‘rubber-stamping’ monthly staff reports.”

The Liberal government’s action plan to fundamentally change the education system was momentarily derailed by a very angry group of teachers in 2016/17. However, the ink on Bill 75 was hardly dry when the Liberals announced, under new Education Minister Zach Churchill, that they would be bringing in an outside expert, Dr. Avis Glaze, from Ontario to embark on a major review of educational governance.

In only a few short weeks, Glaze, herself a Liberal supporter produced a document entitled “Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Administrative System for Nova Scotia”. Not only did this document include many of the same recommendations contained in the original AIMS document, it included similar errors, including referencing that the discipline of teachers should be taken out of the hands of the NSTU.

It, much like the AIMS document, seemed to come for a place of ignorance around how our current system works. For example, Glaze recommended Nova Scotia institute a probationary period for teachers, which we already have. Even more indefensible, (and again, echoing AIMS) was her claim that “…national and international assessments tell us that Nova Scotia students are not achieving their full potential. Nowhere does Nova Scotia even approach Canadian national averages.” when our results are actually at the Canadian national average in many subjects, and we often do very well in national rankings.

The Glaze report also recommended the creation of a College of Teachers to ensure that all the “bad teachers” currently working in the system are dealt with. It suggested that principals be removed from the NSTU, and, as a final blow, it recommended that the Province eliminate all elected school boards and replace them with a centralized body whose members will be appointed by the government. Perhaps, somewhat tellingly, Glaze mentions having consulted with Bennett specifically in her report.

So, let’s review.

We have an organization run by billionaires who have used a right leaning think tank disguised as a charity to erode public faith in public education using misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric. They have, as one of their key mandates, an agenda that would see public education become more privatized. They have convinced the democratically elected body that is our government to eliminate democratically elected school boards who could potentially question any future initiatives to achieve this goal. This same democratically elected government has seemingly set itself to the task of weakening the NSTU, the other democratically elected body standing in AIMS’ way.

AIMS believes that the government should step aside from those activities that are best left to the private sector and market forces. This government, whether through ignorance or collusion, has positioned public education in the path of becoming one of those “activities”.

I see our first wave of AIMS charters opening by 2020.

But, hey, it’s just a theory.



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

8 responses to “Following the money in educational reform

  1. Brent Newsome

    This article isn’t a defense of public education, it’s an excuse as to why we shouldn’t listen to the another view of the debate and calls into questions the motives of others without any evidence that those motives are anything but wanting to improve education.

    Empirical evidence shows The provincial system is not performing to the level of other jurisdictions, this is indisputable. No one involved in education is blameless or without fault. The time for throwing stones and casting blame is over.

    My mother constantly reminds me if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem. Academics who study system and complex problem theory know that there is no one magic decision or thing that can solve the problem. Academics who study complex problems, know that their resolution involves input from everyone as often the solutions are found in the most unlikely places.

    It does no good not to listen to, and even try to discredit others, who also want to suggest alternative solutions. Mr. Frost was no doubt educated about debate and it’s role as a learning device in liberal arts and the classroom. Debate and discussion requires there to be multiple points of view, and acceptance that the other side is at least genuine in their views and beliefs and can support their views with empirical evidence and facts.

    Just because someone has been fortunate to earn a lot of money doesn’t mean that person is anti union or even anti public education. But those billionaires the author criticize built and manage companies with staffs and budgets at the same scale as the education “industry” in Nova Scotia. They, among others, employ the product of the educational systems, and therefore have a legitimate view and a right to express it through an organization, just like the teachers express their views through an organization. These people clearly have some experience that got them to be owners of those large enterprises and as a result have a point of view a classroom teacher likely doesn’t have. It is possible, that with their experience, they see something people really involved in the problem/system don’t. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to listen… Just like a teacher might listen to a parent or another professional (like a school psychologist or other educational resource) when they are trying to get to the bottom of a difficult student/problem in a classroom situation.

    Teachers, are the authority on eduction, but are not necessarily the experts or authority on managing organizations with billions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of “customers”. Sometimes others see something from their experience.

    If people are so entrenched and unwilling to listen to other points of view, and cannot accept that debate and that others have expertise too, no common ground will ever be found and the improvements everyone espouses that they want to see will never happen.

    I plead to my friends who are educators to listen to understand and not listen to rebut.

    • Hello Brent, thanks for the thoughtful response.
      First, I must disagree with your comment that our province is not performing as well as other jurisdictions. We are performing as well as some, and much better than others. Although I am not fan of standardized tests, our results are consistently competitive. For example, in the 2013 PCAP test, 91% of Canadian students met expectations, and 91% of Nova Scotian students met expectations. In 2015, 88% of Canadian students met the expectations, and 87% of Nova Scotian students did the same.
      This is rather the point of the piece. I am not against dialogue by any stretch. But if we want to talk about improving schools, we need to start with actual problems, not perceived ones. My issue is not with people weighing in on educational issues, but rather, with people weighing in on the issues when they do not understand the current system.
      Mr. Risley is a man to be admired, certainly. But I doubt that he would appreciate being forced to make changes to how he runs his business based on what I thought was best practice, particularly if he could show that my suggestions were based on a false premise.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read and respond.

      • Lenore Zann

        Great response Grant! Well said. And great op-ed about Ed as usual. It seems to me that the right wing “Liberal” Govt is veering dangerously towards private interests running everything in this province. A dangerous state of affairs.

  2. Emma

    Grant I enjoy reading your articles. Very thoughtful and written in a style that anyone can understand. I need one thing spelled out for me. What specifically is the motivation for Risley in public education? I can imagine, but I am wondering if one has been articulated. Thanks!

    • Hi Emma, thanks for reading and commenting.
      I couldn’t say if Mr. Risley has any particular motivation for ‘fixing’ public education. However, he is certainly not alone in this. Many business interests world wide try to impact the system. (See Bill and Melinda Gates). If you want to get a broader sense of this debate, I would suggest looking up Pasi Sahlberg or, perhaps more appropriately, Diane Ravitch.

    • One doesn’t have to look far to begin to form conclusions as to Mr. Risley’s Intent.

  3. Nancy Smith

    Great research and writing – could delete most ed references and apply to other areas of Nova Scotia government. Thanks.

  4. AliMac

    This article from an independent British periodical shows how a wider global movement is in the background to these changes and fits remarkably well with Grant’s local narrative:

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