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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Buying Grades Is Just Good Business

The June 18 Sun front page story “Struggling students buying passing grades” should come as no surprise.  Those who control public education in B.C. and their counterparts in the rest of Canada have long since adopted the U.S. concept that education is a business that should be managed and regarded like any other commercial enterprise.  School administrators, ministers of education, trustees and even some teachers frequently refer to students as clients or customers, learning as the education product and teaching as a service to be delivered. Who then can fault schools that seek the ultimate business goal: profit? Indeed, school districts have used foreign exchange students for years as a source of income. Each exchange student a district can attract must pay the full cost of his or her education to the district, some $8000+.  In addition, schools with declining enrolment have bolstered their numbers by becoming specialty schools: Hockey Academies or Schools of Fine Arts, or some other specialty to attract students from neighbouring “domestic markets.”  Of course, each additional full-time student brings in more per capita funding from the Ministry.
Of greater importance is that this shoe-horning of public education into a business model has led to the adoption of corporate management strategies.  Decisions are made at the government level without consultation and handed down through the corporate hierarchy to school boards, superintendants, principals and finally to teachers.  The only determination of school success is what can be measured: test scores, drop-out rates, dollars spent, percentage of graduates, etc.  These can be graphed, plotted, analysed and then used to develop ways to adapt business practices and develop strategies to improve them.  Individual districts have tried to follow the late Steven Covey’s sure-fire practices for improvement, have fiddled with the “culture” of the schools, and held hundreds of hours of consultations with “stakeholders;” all of which have led to no measureable improvement in anything, or indeed any significant change at all.   The Province has altered course requirements, refocused the curriculum on career planning, increased emphasis on the accreditation process, and then decreased it (too expensive).  Still the statistical improvement demanded by the Ministry remained elusive, so they tried what had consistently failed in the United States: legislating improvement.  The Ministry demanded that each school submit a plan outlining how it would achieve measurable improvement and then employed four Super-Superintendents to oversee and ensure success.  The result? What a surprise; no real improvement, only more emphasis on those practices designed to give superficial proof of success. Secondary classroom marks are elevated so that when combined with mandatory government exam marks as required by the Ministry, the overall total is improved. Students who “can’t handle” regular classroom situations are provided with programs that consist of watered down courses they complete by doing a series of worksheets or computerized lessons, the content of which is a fraction of the regular classroom course.  They miraculously achieve B’s and A’s on courses that they previously could not pass.  Failure is eliminated; only success, when and if it is achieved, is recorded.  Consequences of doing little or no school work are continuously postponed. If a student can’t complete courses by the time he or she is nineteen, the adult requirements for graduation kick in and are only two-thirds of those for normal graduation.  By sitting tight, and postponing any and all work, a student can graduate with very little effort, and  the school can still use the outcome as a statistical success.
The serious issues facing public education -- issues of relevance, the use of technology, student achievement – are beyond the scope of the current corporate business model to deal with. As long as the policy makers try to impose flawed, business model solutions to public education from the top down, they will continue to be stymied. But since the alternative is a model of collegial cooperation and consensus building with the only people who really understand how to create positive, successful learning environments, the teachers, the likelihood of that changing soon is remote.  Until then, the Ministry of Education should congratulate those private schools making money by fudging marks; isn’t profit the point?

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