Wednesday, September 10, 2014

One Year From Now: First School Days

A Year From now my daughter will be heading to her first days of kindergarten - she will start her academic journey. As a parent, I know she already has some tremendous advantages, and that if she needs any help along the way that we will do what we can and what needs to be done to ensure that she is able to reach her potential. Our plan was to send our children to public school, at least for their elementary years. We have every confidence in the curriculum. We have every confidence in the ability of public school teachers to inspire learning - we know that there are many dedicated individuals who work tirelessly every school day and every other day to not only do their job, but to do it well. We appreciate the diversity in public school classrooms and feel that it is a benefit to our children.

However, the dispute between the BCTF and the Government, now has me asking some questions about the school system, about how it works, and about how it might be in a state of dysfunction going forward. It has me questioning whether or not the public school system is "healthy" - if it is a place where teachers feel they can innovate and practice to the fullest of their abilities? A place where all students have their needs met? It has me questioning the statistics that the "outcomes are the best in the world" and wondering if those statistics are subject to a kind of statistical slight of hand. Not that the statistics are wrong, just that they fail to tell the full story or have been subjected to cherry-picking. I am wondering about the culture of the public school system - about the relationship between those who teach and those who manage the system.

And I am left with a sense of trepidation and dread.

I fully support a universally accessible, public education system that performs well and meets the needs of the students it serves - but, I have a hard time coming to the conclusion that the system in British Columbia is where it needs to be in order to be a system that performs well, and meets the needs of the students it serves. A system where there is little gap between what the people who work in the system are capable of and what they actually achieve. I am very worried, that given the rhetoric and propaganda, the posturing, and the statistics - that what should be, is and will be, very different from what my daughter and son will actually experience if they go to public school.

First, I have serious concerns about the adequacy of funding in the school system. I know on a per-capita basis student funding has increased at a rate that is slightly ahead of inflation. However, that statistic hides a lot of details and in isolation actually says very little about whether or not that level of funding is "adequate". It fails to take into consideration changes in the composition of the population being served. Are there more high-needs students being served? Are there more students who are facing food insecurity or home instability? How has technology changed, is the system expected to deliver the same things it did 10 years ago, using the same tools? A proxy for adequacy is to look at the funding in other jurisdictions (again a lot of nuances, but in a pinch it will do) - and in British Columbia public school funding as 2010/11 was about $750 less per student per year than the Canadian average. Further, there is some argument to be made that funding all public schools equally at a per student level leaves a lot to be desired in the way of equity as schools in "better-off" neighbourhoods may have a much easier time suplementing their budgets than schools in economically disadvantaged areas. As a result, public funding might be adequate in some areas and inadequate in other areas. However, unlike in health, there is little measurement of the supplemental spending, the private spending, in education.

Second, in terms of outcomes and what is measured, again there are a lot of nuances and considerations to be made. The catchment school that my children would attend, has good outcomes. It also is in a very middle to upper middle class neighbourhood. Consequently, the students who attend might not be grappling with some of the challenges to learning that other students face. There might not be as many who are learning english as a second language. There might not be as many who face food insecurity. There might not be as many in adequate housing. There might be more students with parents who hold post-secondary credentials. There might be less unemployment. There might not be as many with absentee parents. There might not be as many who struggle with the tab for school supplies or field trips. There might be more parents willing to engage tutors to imporve academic performance. The students might be more likely to have a regular family doctor and to have thier health needs met. There might be more parents willing to chip in to fill the gaps in the budget for class room supplies. There might be fewer students waiting for psych-ed assessments simply because their parents have expedited access by paying out of pocket. As a result, the funding that follows students as having special learning needs might be more likely to be available, simply because a greater share of those students will have been identified. (I do not believe the government publically reports how many students are on the wait list for psych-ed assessments and what their average wait time is). In short, the outcomes observed are not entirely a result of what was done within the context of the school system.

Lastly, and perhaps my biggest area of concern - is the state of the relationship between those who manage the school system (government and administrators) and those who are on the front lines - the teachers. I have come to the conclusion that high-performing organizations are able to return exceptional results with the resources they have because they focus on two things: (1) empowering their staff to work to the fullest extent of their capabilities; and, (2) meeting the needs of their customers. There does not seem to be a whole lot of collaboration. There does not seem to be a whole lot of respect. There does not seem to be a lot of trust. There does not seem to be a focus on students and what they need from the education system (which might not be the same thing in all areas). There does not seem to be genuine leadership. There seems to be a lot of ideology, and a lot of frustration. That is not a recipe for innovation - that is not a recipe for "being the best" by any length of the imagination.

When I think of what the public school system should be capable of doing, particularly in a developed country with adequate resource to fund it, there is not a doubt in my mind that it would be more than adequate to meet the needs of my daughter or any other child in British Columbia. However, now less than a year from the time that my daughter will enter the "school system" - I sit very apprehensive. I suppose I could consider myself fortunate that if push came to shove, private school would be an option for us, but there again it disturbs me that the government would benefit from that decision with a substantial savings from not having to meet its full funding obligation with absolutely no requirement to redirect the money saved into the public system. Again, it seems wrong that there is an incentive for the government to encourage parents to opt out of the public system.

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