Friday, June 11, 2010

Fraser Institute is Flat Wrong

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Manning Centre for Democracy’s conference on Alberta’s future. What I didn’t discuss in that post was how I spent an hour in the afternoon in the foyer outside the conference room talking about education with Fraser Institute economist Peter Cowley. Cowley is the author of the Fraser report cards on education and is trotted about as their educational expert, although he has no credentials in the field. The useless and over-normalised ranking of Alberta's high schools appeared in the Calgary Herald last weekend. Along with an exceptionally well-written and referenced (especially given the rotten assignment) article from Sarah McGinnis, the feature included a fallacious and ignorant editorial from Cowley.
Most of the fallacies in his argument can be accounted by the fact that he is an economist from BC and not an educator in Alberta. What is most reprehensible is that I pointed out these fallacies to him in January and he chose to ignore them and propogate the myths.

Fallacy Number One: "there is no provision for the routine expansion of successful operations." For 10 years, educational partners in Alberta have been engaged in a process specifically designed to expand successful operations called the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. It is a highly successful model that is based on collaboration between a number of stakeholder organisations, including the ATA. It is the exact opposite of competition and it is having profound impacts on learning in Alberta that would not be possible under Fraser's preferred models for education.

Fallacy Two: "professional autonomy in the classroom inhibits the adoption of more effective teaching practice." Once again, this is completely opposite from the truth. As a teacher I had many strategies for delivering curriculum. Some of them were safe, tried and true. Others were innovative, off-the-wall and risky. Some of the practices I tried worked and others did not, but it was because of professional autonomy that I felt I could try them out, evaluate their effectiveness and adjust my practice accordingly. Without autonomy, I would have continued to deliver the safe, tried and true methods day-in and day-out.

Fallacy Three: "professional autonomy limits the principal's role as head teacher and mentor, making classroom level improvements more difficult to establish." Autonomy means that I, as an educated professional, can choose which practices I will use in my classroom. If my principal wants me to use a different strategy he would need to make the case for it. He needs to convince me of its merits and we would have to engage in academic discourse over its pedagogical value. As a result of this collegial environment, we have better educational outcomes for students. The alternative is that the principal comes in and dictates practice without discussion and without debate over what is best for the individual students in the individual classrooms (this is mentorship?).

Fallacy Number Four: "limitations on hours of work make it difficult for individual schools to extend the school timetable." Interestingly, in Alberta, the school jurisdictions with the most flexible timetables are the same jurisdictions that have hours of work clauses in their collective agreements. These agreements simply mean that the boards must achieve such changes in consultation with teachers. In many cases, the flexibility that allows for these innovations is because of these clauses. By spelling out the number of hours of assignable and instructional time for a teacher, it becomes easier to allocate those hours outside of the traditional teaching day.

Fallacy Number Five: there is "no evidence that any BC teacher had ever lost his right to teach due to incompetence." I don't have expertise in the BC education system and so will not comment on that aspect, but this is not the case in Alberta. Until last year teacher competency was enforced by the Council on Alberta Teaching Standards, who have removed certificates from teachers deemed to be not competent. Alberta's teachers are committed to upholding the honour and integrity of the profession, they have enforced professional conduct for decades and last year took over the role of policing competency as well.

Simply put, Cowley is an economist from British Columbia who has made no significant efforts to truly understand the education system in Alberta. He is advocating a tired mantra of privatisation and using falsehoods and data manipulation to advance his cause. I'm less dissapointed in him than I am in the Calgary Herald for publishing the tripe.


Brian said...

Very interesting take on this. I'd be curious, though, to hear more about a teacher's thoughts on autonomy. Isn't there something to the argument put forward by the Fraser Institute regarding teachers who cannot be fired, though? I see your points in this area, but it seems from the outside that it is far too difficult to dismiss teachers who obviously deserve it.

Atypical Albertan said...

Two things Brian,

First, teachers are let go more often than people realise. This may not always be apparent because it is often done in a way that minimizes disruptions in the class.

Secondly, we can all think of teachers that we had that we felt shouldn't be teaching. One of the biggest things I learned as I made the transition from student to teacher is that many of the teachers I disliked were in fact good teachers. It's hard to see from the students' point-of-view but a teacher may be trying to push you to do more and you dislike that. Or you might think they can't teach but perhaps that is because they are trying really hard to get through to another type of learner. There are a multitude of reasons why a teacher might appear to be bad, yet they have incredible qualities that aren't apparent to that student.

The interesting thing about teaching is we all have a critical eye because we were all students. Ultimately we need a clear standard on which to judge teachers and that standard is the Teaching Quality Standard. If anyone wants to know how demanding a teacher's job really can be, check it out.

ben said...

Nice to see someone who like forensic logic! (When Pres of NYU was on Charlie Rose he talked about how most folk are "allergic to thought" ... no a pleasant prospect.)

Say, if you know someone who's positioned to move on some uhhhh dialectial instructional software in #YEG please DM me! (I'm back home after 2 decades away and have 0.00 traction here.)

nice to meet you!

If you look to see how the system works
Likely you will find that it doesn't.

DaveC said...

I figured I'd comment here now that I'd caught up with your blog work, didn't know you were writing so voraciously on education and politics. Then again, I always figured when the revolution came you'd be waving the red flag! I got a particular laugh at the Sunday, November 29, 2009 post, I just figured the punchline would be that you were a deep cover KGB spy all this time.

Sorry, enough of the name calling, you've got a keen eye for this sort of thing; in all seriousness. What do you make of this 2.5 million dollar "Setting the Direction Framework" report they just pushed out?

thescamdog said...

The Fraser Report is good at one thing. It does a great job of ranking schools based on parental affluence and education levels.