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Reflections on Education and the Alberta Election 


The much anticipated Alberta election is over and the disappointment of thousands of Alberta educators and parents is palpable as the pro Education Notley NDP victory was not to be. The NDP, however, drew 44% of the vote which was much higher than 40% they achieved in 2015, when they won, due to the divided conservatives running both the PCs and the Wild Rose Party even further to the right. In 2011, the NDP had 4 seats, and won 128,752 votes. This election they won 776,230 votes, The Liberal and Alberta parties in the center, have disappeared and the Green Party came 3rd with 0.8% of the vote and 14,085 votes.

Alberta is now, even more clearly, a two party province than either BC or Manitoba. This is a major accomplishment. If you were to spread just 1300 votes over 6 Calgary ridings the NDP would have 44 seats and Notley would be premier. 


The NDP promised 7000 more educators, to reduce class sizes in the form of 4000 teachers and 3000 education assistants. This would have been fabulous. We can only hope that Danielle Smith hires a fraction of that number. That 7000 would have cost $700 million over 4 years. They also promised that they would scrap the idiotic and reactionary Jason Kenney curriculum which played down any concerns with equity and played up a nostalgic view of Anglo Saxon domination and thinly veiled Anglo supremacy in a “great achievements” view consistent with American conservative social science orthodoxy that favours loyalty and patriotism over honesty, truth and equity. 


Yes it’s true, and disappointing, that the ANDP program did not challenge the funding of private schools or the expansion of elitist charter schools but the “BCNDP have never challenged the funding of private schools and the Ontario NDP have never challenged the funding of public catholic schools either. In endless discussions on these issues across many provinces, leaders quietly expressed that they disapprove of these schools but “that’s a very divisive fight we hope to avoid” with enough on their table. 


In summary, a disappointing result after leading in the polls for 2 years but it is probably comforting to understand that when the UCP holds cabinet meetings, or high level strategy meetings over the next 4 years and semi permanently, when discussion move to the radical right wing agenda items pushed by the “Take Back Alberta” far right fringe, someone in the room will be saying, “sure we could do that, but do you want to hand the 2027 election to the NDP”?


In an odd moment, Danielle Smith pledged, in her victory speech to “build the best health and education systems in the world in Alberta” by studying other great systems and applying their best ideas to Alberta.” Hard to know what she means but all the best western education systems are in social democratic countries. Canada by many measures, like PISA, is a top level nation already and Alberta and Ontario are at the top of Canadian results. If you want some insight into perhaps the very best way to spend always limited resources, read below. 


Major Change in the Thinking of USA’s Number One Conservative Education Economist and Implications for Canada.


American conservative education economist Eric Hanuchek, most recently at the Stanford Hoover Institute think tank, has had an epiphany and reversed course after a long career of insisting that money had little to do with educational outcomes. Hanushek was still working on his PhD in the 1960s when the famous Coleman Report on education was issued. Coleman pointed out that up to 70% of educational results are not determined by what happens in schools but in the neighbourhood, largely related to poverty and poverty related issues, single parents, public housing, crime, and so forth. Hanushek simply could not believe Coleman but when he delved deeply into the numbers, he became convinced that Coleman and his team were correct. Kids did badly in schools largely due to the effects of poverty. What Hanushek neglected is the fact that Coleman had left a huge 30% door open for school related issues. 


Hanushek became so convinced of Coleman’s findings that he argued in major academic papers and journals that “throwing money at schools has little effect on results”. He was frequently called as an expert witness in court cases regarding underfunding of education. In fact it reached the Supreme Court where a very conservative Justice Samuel Alito cited Hanushek in major cases. 


Hanushek’s argumentation was picked up by the American conservative movement to buttress their arguments that instead of more funding, charters, vouchers, student testing and teacher testing  were the route to improvement. 


Recently, new researchers, using new tools, were coming to different conclusions. Hanushek was skeptical until the sheer volume of these papers finally impressed him and he reversed himself, acknowledging that the majority of recent studies, indeed showed that money, spent wisely, could have significant positive effects on education. He concluded it was still expensive, nevertheless but it seems that spending $1000 extra per student could drive graduations up by 3%. He concludes that the cost-benefit analysis of the new research must be left to elected people to make final decisions. 


When pressed for what he meant by the wise spending of resources, Hanushek said that simply spreading out additional money across an entire system had little return in value. Targeting reduced class sizes for example to the poorest performing schools made far more sense and even better would be to find ways to put the very best teachers in front of the lowest performing students by using incentives. That would be the best possible way he could think of to use scarce education dollars. 


That’s as much as he said but let’s break that down. What if a school board, in conjunction with the teachers’ union, could set up a situation where the very best teachers self described, needed to apply to a panel to work in the poorest schools where they would be interviewed by a panel of superintendents, have their credentials examined and their past outstanding achievements evaluated and if successful would be ‘promoted’ to work in struggling schools and as a result, paid an extra $10-15000 above contract to work there. They would also know that they were on the fast track to becoming principals, or superintendents if this was their chosen career path. Would that make a significant difference for those students and by extension to the country? It’s actually hard to think of a better way to spend money. 

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