Andrew Nikiforuk, Author and Journalist

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Frontier Centre: Critics of public schools argue that performance is declining, yet objective proof of that can be spotty or non-existent. What indicators do you trust? How effectively are public schools educating children?

Andrew Nikiforuk: You just have to look at the data that comes from provincial testing right across the country. When you do, you find a consistent pattern right across the board: about 25 to 30 percent of all kids in Grade Three are having difficulty reading. What is disturbing is that, by the time you see the tests in Grade Six, Two or Three years down the road, you don’t find any huge improvement in that failure rate. Another disturbing element in provincial testing is the appalling failure rate for aboriginal kids. You look at data from British Columbia or the Yukon or Saskatchewan, and you find that aboriginal kids in Grades Three, Six and Nine progressively are failing in greater numbers at each one of those grade levels. The longer those kids stay in school, the worse they do. Those schools are really subtracting value from those kids.

FC: Let’s preface the discussion about educational reform with some context. How important are social and cultural externals things like family break-up?

AN: Those social and cultural things are really important. We know that the children coming from broken homes have a lot on their minds and we know that kids that come from poor homes have a lot on their shoulders. We know that income matters, that the happiness of the family matters, we know that the quality of work that the parents are involved in matters all those things matter. All those cultural variables are very important, but they are not excuses for schools to do badly. Schools can only control the variables in the classroom. At the end of the day, they are responsible for taking a group of kids, from diverse backgrounds up that slope. We know that some schools are much more effective at moving a diverse group of kids, and you have to ask yourself why. Are cultural or social factors responsible? No, what it comes down to are educational factors: the quality of instruction, the quality of programming and the will of the adults in charge.

FC: Could you give us a brief summary of your five taboos? First, school choice?

AN: Choice is important. Choice is not going to solve all of the problems in education, it is not a magic bullet, but choice is important in this sense. A school system, like a forest system or a mountain system or any eco-system, is richer and has the ability to sustain itself to the degree that it cherishes diversity. That is what choice is all about. Choices in a public school system allow different communities in that system to educate their children just a little bit differently. Whether you add an element of religion or the liberal arts, or the fine arts, or science, or sports, there is an emphasis that makes a difference to that community, with the result that choice can only enrich the public system.

FC: Taboo number two is content.

AN: Content is something that school systems have become increasingly fearful of. They are afraid of offending this group or that group or they are afraid of engaging their children in controversial debate. But that is what good education does. It takes you out sometimes on to thin ice and forces you to think about where you are and what you are doing. Good literature is always dangerous, good history is always dangerous and a school system that doesn’t care about content is like a restaurant that doesn’t care about its menu.

FC: Certification of teachers?

AN: Our faculties of education are centres that promote mediocrity and finance universities, but that do nothing for kids. We need to open more doors for certification, so that anyone who wants to teach, who has something to offer, who actually knows something and who can demonstrate competence in the classroom in an apprenticeship program, can get that certification. Right now we are just ensuring that only those people with the stamina and the courage and the time and the money to endure four years of a faculty of education get into teaching. That’s a huge problem and a huge obstacle.

FC: Value-added assessment?

AN: Value-added assessment is a statistical tool developed by William Sanders in the United States. Basically, it was a system designed to look at student performance in a classroom. From this statistical tool, Sanders was able to figure out what most of us have always known, that teacher quality counts and that it is the most important factor in a child’s education. If you were stuck with two bad teachers in a row, it could just about finish your school career and your chance for success in schooling. Conversely, if you get stuck with a superb teacher for two years in a row, you are going to go far and away. Those are the teachers you always remember. Value-added assessment is basically about the principle that, for every year a student is in school, we should see a year of advancement. If we don’t, then that school is not adding value to that child’s life.

FC: The final taboo, the importance of scale in schools?

AN: Scale is critical to the success of any enterprise. We acknowledge that small businesses are the engine of a capitalist economy and keep it civil and keep it prosperous. The same applies to an educational endeavour. Small schools are the engine that keep the system accountable, sustainable and produce the best results. The research has said that, yet school boards and ministries of education consistently ignore it. There is a real danger in ignoring the importance of scale in education.

FC: Alberta is the only province devoted to school choice. Why has it been more successful there than in other provinces?

AN: It hasn’t been successful in other provinces because it has been demonized as something that would destroy the public system and balkanize it. In fact, the model in the Edmonton Public School Board has demonstrated that, if done right, choice can actually invigorate the public system and at the same time slaughter enrolment in private schools. Much of the resistance to choice has been hysterical, ideological and just wrong.

FC: The most formidable barriers to school choice have been mounted by powerful teachers’ unions. Why are they so adamantly and almost universally opposed?

AN: That’s a good question, because when you look at teachers’ associations and teachers in other countries, for example in Europe, you find that the teachers there are working in systems that provide a high degree of choice to their communities. There are religious schools, there are state-sponsored schools, there are all kinds of schools. They are all funded by the state, and the teachers love working in a system with that amount of diversity. What we have here are unions fighting a bogeyman that they have created from a purely baseless fear that choice is somehow going to destroy public schooling. In fact, all the research points in one direction. Choice invigorates the system, makes it more accountable and responsible, and actually makes it more pleasant to work in.

FC: Your critique of the content of curricula hits some obvious targets, like dumbing down and political correctness. Could you summarize some of these trends?

AN: There are a lot of trends when it comes to curricula and content. But the major ones are where we have committees writing text books and they don’t give a hoot about accuracy. That is one problem. We also have bias and sensitivity committees checking text books for any sign of offense to any group, with the result that we end up with a sanitized picture of a perfectly safe and pleasant world which is anti-intellectual and anti-educational. Then we have the problem with curricula that doesn’t specify or say that certain things are more valuable to know than other things. Great books are more important to read than lesser books. We are afraid to say that, and we are only impoverishing our children by failing to make judgments about what’s good and what’s not good.

FC: Current text books, it is charged, are filled with errors of fact. If so, has this always been a problem or is it a modern epidemic?

AN: It is probably a modern epidemic, in the sense that text books never used to be written by committees and never had to follow guidelines and pass the scrutiny of bias and sensitivity committees. As a result of this very Soviet-like process, we are introducing more and more mistakes. Text books at one time used to be primarily written by one author, a scholar, and they would be short and to the point. Sometimes they would have some good illustrations, but that was not always the case. But we have changed that system, and schools and teachers can no longer choose which text books they need to get the job done. Everything is mandated, and when you have that kind of heavy-handed system that operates behind closed doors, you end up with a lot of books that are basically unreadable.

FC: Is the process of teacher certification adequate? What can we do to improve it?

AN: The trend right now in teacher certification is to add more hoops and hurdles to the system. I’d say, let’s deregulate this whole thing and let’s make it easier for people to get in the profession. Let’s make it pretty simple, make sure you know your subject matter, make sure that you go through an apprenticeship program where you have to demonstrate your competence, and let’s make competence the basis of the system, not one’s ability to collect paper and write tests. Let’s put at the centre of the whole thing one’s ability to teach a classroom with a diverse group of kids and to move them along.

FC: Why do you want to see smaller schools?

AN: I want to see smaller schools because they work. In particular, they work well for impoverished communities, because the scale of things is just more civil and convivial when it is smaller. So I don’t only want to see smaller schools, I want to see smaller school boards, I want to see smaller teacher unions, I want to see smaller bargaining units. A school system that respects the importance of scale is a school system that is more responsible, more accountable and gets better results for everyone. It produces parents, teachers and kids with much higher degrees of satisfaction and a sense of achievement.

FC: What are your thoughts on class size? It is usually trundled out that one way to improve education is to have smaller classes.

AN: Smaller classes may or may not improve education. Just making a class smaller without changing the quality of instruction won’t make much of a difference. You can either focus on classroom size or you can focus on the quality of instruction. Most of the research says that classroom size matters, there is no doubt about it, but what matters more is the quality of instruction. We could mandate smaller classrooms until the cows come home, but we won’t get much of a better system until we really have a handle on teacher quality.

FC: The Internet has enabled home schooling to become much more widespread and effective. Do you see bricks and mortar fading away, due to the Internet?

AN: The Internet has helped home schooling but didn’t start it. The home schooling movement was taking off long before the Internet came along. Some home schoolers use the Internet, others do not. But the home schooling movement was very much just a matter of people voting with their feet and getting out of a school system they didn’t feel reflected or supported their family values. Although the Internet is very useful for moving curriculum around and for finding good programs, it is not going to replace the school house or the school or the classroom. There will always be a need for buildings, a library, a gym, a soccer field or a music hall.

FC: You mentioned today that more resources go to teachers in the Edmonton School Board than in any other system. Why is that and why is that significant?

AN: In Edmonton, you have site-based management and schools control their own budgets. You find that 50 percent of the school’s budget goes to the teachers and, one of the reasons for that is that the money is not going to support a bureaucracy. It is actually going to the people who do the real work. When you have a system where schools are accountable for how they spend their money, schools naturally will spend more on teachers. The statistics for Edmonton are remarkable, especially when you look at other site-managed systems like Seattle and Houston. Edmonton still comes out as number one in spending on teachers.

FC: What is a typical figure in a Canadian city for a percentage going to teachers?

AN: It is lower than 50 percent. It is probably around 30 or 40 percent.

FC: Does school board amalgamations work?

AN: Amalgamating school boards is just one of these awful trends in education, where governments thought they could simplify their lives if they got rid of all these small school boards and just dealt with big entities. Then they tried justify the consolidation by lying and saying it will save money. But there is no evidence consolidation has done that. Consolidation has made the system less responsive and accelerated conflict between unions and school boards, because we now have just one big entity against another. It has resulted in a full-scale attack on small schools in rural areas, and also in urban areas where they have been closed or junked. Amalgamations have been an unmitigated disaster.

FC: They don’t save any money?

AN: They don’t save any money.

FC: Most teachers work hard and perform well, but some clearly should be doing something else. How do we remove bad teachers?

AN: Simply by looking at the performance of students in their classes over time. If we don’t see those students moving upwards and making gains in achievement, then we need to do one of two things. We need either to support that teacher and give him or her the tools they need to be successful with kids, or we need to say to that teacher, “Look you are not making a difference here, maybe it’s time for you to do something else.” The unions need to allow such a process without contesting every dismissal of a bad teacher. People would respect teacher unions a lot more if they could simply admit that, yes, there are some bad teachers out there, yes, we need a process to get rid of them and, yes, we will do it fairly. The good teachers in the system would only applaud the union for doing that. It is a really, really important thing we need to do and there is no excuse for not doing it.

FC: Manitoba pulled the plug on standardized testing in 1999. How do you measure a teacher’s performance if you are not measuring the results?

AN: You can’t measure a teacher’s performance if you are not measuring a student’s performance. It is impossible, so a system that doesn’t measure student performance is a system that doesn’t care how effective its teachers are. We know that a system that doesn’t care how effective its teachers are is a system that ends up abusing children.

FC: Should we bring back rigorous standardized testing?

AN: Absolutely. I think you need rigorous standardized testing to give parents, teachers and the community feedback on the public system. Where is the accountability if you don’t do some testing?

FC: What about the union’s response that we end up with systems that teach to the test and that you can overdo testing?

AN: Testing can definitely be overdone, but in some cases you want people to teach to the test. If you have set as a standard for Grade Three the ability to read at Grade Three level, and if teachers are actively working towards that goal, then what’s the problem? Excuse me, I think we should have everyone in Grade Three reading at a Grade Three level. The unions are right, in the sense that you can overdo testing. But on the other hand, if you don’t test at all, then the elements of your school population you are penalize the most are those that are the most vulnerable, those that already behind and come from communities that don’t have the kind of intellectual capital that richer communities do. Unions that support taking away simple measurement tools on student performance are really saying that impoverished kids or aboriginal kids or ESL kids don’t matter. And that is irresponsible.

FC: Why would you allow teachers to join any union they want?

AN: Simply because I think that is what teachers would like. I think they would like a few more choices than what they have at the moment. In the United States, you can choose between two unions. In Canada, you are automatically a member of the one provincial association that represents you. These unions don’t always represent the professional interests of teachers. Maybe it is time to give teachers some choice so they can find bargaining agents willing to take on some of these professional issues that unions tend to ignore.

FC: Why would you eliminate faculties of education?

AN: I would eliminate them simply because they have not made a difference. There is no accountability and they tend to narrow the kind of people that go into education. It is not just faculties of education I would get rid of. I’d also get rid of the faculties of journalism as well. They both put up hoops and obstacles to get into a trade, with the result that they narrow the quality and character of people who want to get in. We need teachers from all walks of life just like we need journalists from all walks of life. Otherwise we won’t have that kind of diversity of outlook that we need for successful schools or a successful newspaper.

FC: If you had the power to legislate only one of these reforms, which one would you choose?

AN: I would get rid of faculties of education first.

FC: You mentioned that schools should have the ability to choose what school board district they are in. That is an interesting idea, can you explain it?

AN: We always assume that school boards know it all and can get it right. In fact, they often end up being just another bureaucratic mechanism to manage and over-manage schools. Everything really needs to devolve down to the school and the school needs to be the decision-maker. Why can’t we allow individual schools to choose which boards they would like to be members of, and let them buy services from the board they feel are the most effective, the most practical and the most accountable? I think that is a system we should try.

FC: Is it happening anywhere?

AN: I don’t think it is happening anywhere at the moment, other than at the Edmonton School Board. It basically has a system where you are free either to buy services from the board or from anyone else in the city. You can buy them from a private school if you have to. There is that element of choice. But most school boards now really overrule and over-manage schools, rather than allowing schools to come to the board and say, this is what we need to get the job done. We need to turn the system around, I think that giving schools the choice of board they would like to align with would be a really interesting experiment.