If I were to be asked what advice I would give public school teachers in this country right now it would be “Hold onto your hats.”
The election of the United Conservative Party in Alberta under the leadership of Jason Kenney is the latest in what has been a series of victories for those in this country who support a more privatized version of public education. Certainly, while setting out his educational platform in the run-up to the win, Kenney made no secret about what he saw as the best way for Alberta to improve its public education system. The steps included an increase in focus on standardized testing, a move away from discovery math, and a removal of the current cap that exists on the number of charter schools permitted in the province. Kenney also called for an end to “failed teaching fads”, and decried what he considered a “devastating reduction in math proficiency.”
Most of us who work in the field of education are used to the rhetoric about falling tests scores and calls for immediate action to “fix” the problem. Certainly here in Nova Scotia the party line coming out of Province House has been an almost constant drone of “our schools are failing”; a line which has been used to justify everything from a new set of professional standards for teachers to the abolition of elected school boards. However, to hear a politician from Alberta complain that their students’ tests scores are simply not good enough, particularly in math, seems almost novel.
When comparing standardized test scores, the two major measures which are usually part of the conversation are the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Although varying somewhat in scope, these tests tend to be the benchmark used to measure educational achievement, and are the results that the casual observer sees from time to time splashed across the front page of the local paper.
When it comes to the ranking of the math capabilities for students, Alberta has finished no less than third since 2010 on the PCAP, and has achieved similar standings on the PISA. For those who believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure whether a school system is successful (it isn’t, by the way) Alberta’s scores have long been touted as evidence that the rest of us are not up to snuff. Alberta pointing to its test score as an indicator that change is a necessary imperative, (lest their children fall behind) is a development that, for many of us, holds no small irony.
However, it is not in the call for an increased focus on standardized testing where the true purpose of Kenney’s educational reform truly reveals itself. Nor is it in the promise to make it more difficult for students to form Gay/Straight Alliance clubs in schools. Nor is it in the promise to find efficiencies within the system by cutting administrative overhead. Nor is it even in the promise to remove the cap currently in place on the number of charter schools in the province, which, by their very nature, provide an undue advantage to wealthier community members at the expense of less fortunate ones.
No, the real rubber will hit the road when Kenney announces, as per his campaign promise, that charter schools will now be permitted to own property.
There is a very famous anecdote about McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and his take on business. According to legend, after speaking at with an MBA class at the University of Texas in 1974, Kroc accepted an invitation to join some of the students for few few beers. During that rather laid back social event, Kroc asked the MBA students “What business am I in?” to which all the students replied, quite obviously, “The hamburger business.” Kroc paused (presumably for dramatic effect) and told the students they were wrong. He was not in the hamburger business. He was in the real-estate business.
Every McDonald’s restaurant that I have ever encountered sits on what can only be viewed as a prime piece of real estate, at least relative to the towns in which they exist. By some accounts, McDonald’s is the largest owner of real estate in the world, most of it, of course, purchased using the proceeds from the sales of the aforementioned hamburgers. But, in the end, the burgers are just the means to the ends.
Now, take that same business model thinking and apply it to local public schools. Once Kenney allows charter school operators to own property, the same premise will come into play.
Charter schools, it should be remembered, are schools that are set up to operate outside of the public system. They are offered up as alternatives to traditional schools, usually after a fairly long and substantive campaign has been undertaken to convince the general population that traditional schools are failing. That campaign to create what I like to call “Unsupported Deficiency Syndrome” invariably involves labeling standardized test results as “not good enough” followed immediately by cries of “Our children are in danger of being left behind.” The charter schools then step in to promote themselves as being a better option than the “one size fits all” public system.
The beauty in this for the edu-preneurs is that once the public buys in, parents will line up around the block to get their kids into the charter school, even in the face of evidence that the public system is actually doing well. After all, parents want what is best for their kids, and utilizing another business strategy called FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) charter school proponents find it relatively easy to exploit parental unease. And, of course, every single student comes to the door of the new charter school with a backpack full of taxpayer dollars in the form of per-student funding, a percentage of which can now be used by the charter school backers to buy a piece of what is undoubtedly primely situated real-estate.
So, in amongst all the rhetoric coming from Kenney about pipe lines, and the environment, and student GSA’s, is this one little nugget that, should it be enacted, will open up the Canadian education system in ways that we could never have imagined possible a generation ago. Canadian schools will be open for business, with the ground they sit upon being the ultimate prize.
Welcome, Alberta, to the era of McEducation. It probably will not be long before the rest of us follow your lead.