Doubting education orthodoxy

Kurt Peacock THE NEXT CITY – Telegraph Journal – Saturday August 23, 2014

While it was first delivered more than seven decades ago, the second inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt remains one of the most important political documents of the past 100 years. It was given in January of 1937, as North America remained mired in a prolonged recession, not unlike the one New Brunswick is currently experiencing. Yet instead of the standard political trope about the need for job creation, FDR issued a call to action to those citizens who collectively wanted a better future.

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished, ”FDR said. “It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope – because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out.”

I thought about FDR’s pronouncement earlier this week, as the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative   – a non-profit that has spent more than a decade attempting to find ways to provide more opportunity for Saint John’s lowest-income residents – came out in favour of a dramatic overhaul of the way we educate our youngest citizens.

And even if the one-third ratio starkly invoked by FDR involved     millions of Depression-weary Americans, it wouldn’t be that hard to find a similar statistic within the City of Saint John.

In fact, according to Statistics Canada, 31.8 per cent of the city population under the age of 18 is considered low income. When the population of residents under the age of six is considered, the low-income percentage jumps even higher: fully 37.6 per cent of the city’s youngest residents live in households with extremely limited incomes. This is more than double the national percentage; according to Statistics Canada, 18.1 per cent young citizens under the age of six fall below the agency’s after-tax low-income measure.

Our schools are supposed to help erase this inequity over the long term, but they’re not yet fulfilling that mandate, either here in Saint John or anywhere else. Throughout North America, public education has historically been seen as the great equalizer among households with unequal beginnings – the argument being, that once children of different socio-economic backgrounds are all placed in the same classroom, they will all end up with roughly the same outcomes at the end.

Yet education researchers like New Brunswick’s own Doug Willms have   undertaken years of research examining the “learning bar” that exists between student performance and family income status. In a number of jurisdictions – including this province  – the higher the household income, the higher the likelihood that the student is going to obtain a successful education outcome. Conversely, the lower the household income, the greater the risk of a student being left behind. In a perfect world, that learning bar would be as flat as possible, and every student is given an opportunity to succeed. In the real world, the learning bar is fairly steep.

This socio-economic gradient is starkly obvious in Greater Saint John. In the city’s north end at Lorne School, only 31.6 per cent of Grade 7 students were able to meet the province’s reading achievement standard in 2013. In suburban Rothesay Park school (a school that draws from a much more affluent population), 82.3 per cent of students were able to achieve the reading standard in 2013.

Obviously, to ensure equality of opportunity, it would make some sense to efficiently allocate education resources to those schools that may face the greatest risk of producing poor outcomes.

Yet, under the strict per-capita funding logic that has been the norm for New Brunswick’s school system since the Equal Opportunity reforms, a   student in Rothesay (where median household income is around $27,000 higher than in Saint John) is funded the same as a student from Saint John’s north end.

Now, BCAPI is prepared to challenge 50 years of Equal Opportunity orthodoxy, and is calling on the political parties to seriously examine how the provincial government funds its schools.

For a business crowd that includes many well-heeled Rothesay residents, this is an interesting, and well-researched argument. The group has prepared a position paper on the matter, and is intent on lobbying all provincial politicians in advance of the September vote (Full disclosure: I have undertaken research on behalf of BCAPI in the past, but played no role in developing their suggestion that New Brunswick break with education funding orthodoxy.)

“Ever since Equal Opportunity in the 1960s, there’s been a policy of one size fits all, per-capita funding for education and we’d like to challenge that notion. There are certain areas where more money needs to be spent,” current BCAPI Chair Tom Gribbons told the Telegraph-Journal.

Will New Brunswick’s politicians listen to the group’s idea, and be prepared to fundamentally change a key pillar of Equal Opportunity? It’s so provocative, it just might work. Our province usually falls at the back of the   pack in OECD assessments on education outcomes, so improvements are sorely needed. And while every candidate will likely state platitudes about the importance of education in advance of the coming vote, we need concrete and compelling ideas to actually improve our rather dismal learning outcomes – outcomes that have historically been less and less positive the further down the socio-economic gradient our students reside.

While the test scores by themselves make the case for significant policy change, there’s also the lessons implicit in FDR’s second inaugural address. Because St. Patrick’s school (serving the city’s lower west side, and home to a number of low-income students) is now closed indefinitely over structural concerns while Rothesay’s Fairvale Elementary is getting tens of thousands in provincial money for playground improvements, I’ll close with the words of a leader who helped millions escape the bind of poverty: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Katie Bowden