Class Dismissed, Duly Noted, A Lost Cause, and Safer Trip
Illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi

Class dismissed

Who Killed Canada’s Education Advantage?” (November), by Roger Martin, addresses a serious Canadian concern: how can we keep up with or, better still, stay ahead of the US in the quality of our educational programs? However, his argument that the minor downgrading of Canada’s foreign currency debt was the primary cause of public education spending cuts is flawed. Paul Martin’s budgets had a limited impact on Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution or on anything Ralph Klein did to Alberta’s schools. (Note that other provinces continued to spend at least as much on schools as they had in the past.) Moreover, it is simplistic to claim that health and education constitute a zero-sum game. Spending more money on health care does not automatically mean there will be less to spend on education. Taxation and reducing expenditures give all levels of government a certain degree of freedom to implement their agendas.

The writer chiefly errs in measuring the quality of education only by “inputs,” totally ignoring results. Did the percentage of students graduating drop? Did average test scores diminish? Did the percentage of high school graduates going on to post-secondary education decline, etc.? Not according to any study I’ve ever seen. In fact, since the days of the Coleman Report, back in the 1960s, it has been grudgingly acknowledged that per student expenditures have little effect on achievement in comparison to a student’s home environment and socio-cultural setting. Surpassing the US in education won’t happen because our governments throw more money at schools. It will happen when Canadians turn off their kids’ TVs and cellphones and start reading to them and helping them with their homework.
Craig Copland
New York, NY

While it is indeed a shame that our country should suffer a decline in competitive advantage as a result of inadequate education funding, this concern is probably more relevant to the economic elite than to the common citizen. It seems to me that a more broadly shared fear concerns the loss of human potential when our youth are denied opportunities we can and should provide. Naturally, a solution to this problem would address Roger Martin’s economic concerns as well.
Al Lehmann
Terrace, BC

I appreciated Roger Martin’s concise analysis of government’s attempt to escape fiscal vulnerability in the 1990s. He is, however, back in the “old economy” when he proposes that heavy reinvestment in post-secondary education is a preferred alternative to health care spending. In May 2003, then Bank of Canada governor David Dodge suggested that investment in the early years might provide a higher social return than later educational investments. Indeed, the Human Early Learning Partnership, a consortium of BC scholars, has demonstrated that around 25 percent of children entering public school across Canada are vulnerable to failure. Given that our population is aging, we cannot afford to write off a quarter of our children to un- or underemployment in the knowledge economy.
Ashley Chester
Vancouver, BC

The November cover claims that “health care spending is shortchanging education,” but the corresponding article by Roger Martin makes only a passing and rather weak attempt to establish a causal relationship between the two. Moreover, although the piece tries desperately to be provocative, it fails because it ignores two important truths: one, spending more money on education doesn’t necessarily produce better results; and two, big public deficits are bad for all citizens.

This last point is significant because the only solution Martin offers for repairing Ontario’s education system is a massive financial investment. Since he never says explicitly where this money would come from, I can only assume that he wants to increase the federal debt, which continues to grow larger and more ominous.
Peter McKinnon
Ottawa, ON

Please, let us give credit where it is due. While Mike Harris (a university dropout) contributed greatly to the decline of the Canadian education system, former Alberta premier Ralph Klein (who stopped short of his high-school diploma) set the precedent.

The Alberta Advantage, Klein’s education initiative, was an oxymoron to say the least: it replaced a fiscal deficit with an intellectual deficit that continues to this day. ESL and special needs programs disappeared in record time. Teachers’ salaries were cut. A corporate model was applied to the public education system, and schools resorted to acquiring business partners in the community to compensate for their reduced budgets.

This year Ed Stelmach’s provincial government cut $80 million from the education budget, and they’ve proposed cuts of $340 million for 2010. It seems that Alberta’s intellectual shortfall has risen higher than anyone could have predicted during Klein’s ascent in the early 1990s.
Chris Gerein
Calgary, AB

Roger Martin presents an accurate account of the causes of Canada’s current educational crisis, but I wish he had spent more time discussing the crisis itself. His assertion that “those who graduated from Canadian universities before 1995 simply don’t know what the university experience is like today” is truer than most readers realize.

In the early nineties, massive cutbacks left Ontario learning institutions scrambling to make do with fewer resources. The most obvious result of trying to do more with less, of course, is that you do less. As such, universities dealt with their budget shortfalls by increasing enrolment without bolstering their faculty complement. Carleton increased its student body by 31 percent between 1988 and 2008, while the professoriate grew by only 8 percent during the same time period. Full-time enrolment increased by 49 percent, leaving student-to-instructor ratios stretched beyond a reasonable degree.

Large classes are especially problematic in the first year. In Ontario, introductory courses can be enormous, with many holding upwards of 500 students. Running a class this size is more like babysitting than teaching. As a result, first-year students — many of whom have already received an abysmal high-school education due to cutbacks at that level — do not learn the skills they need to be successful in their upper-level courses. University education becomes like a remedial-learning program. Upper-year instructors spend more time simply teaching students how to write, a skill they should have learned years earlier, and fourth-year seminars, which are meant to serve as educational capstones, become awkward affairs in which students try to avoid being called on by the professor. In the end, Canadian students are paying record-high tuition, and often getting very little in the way of a university education in exchange.

Canadians have to realize that education is not a business, and universities cannot be run like factories. Education is difficult, time consuming, and requires instructors who are able to interact with students. Canadian governments need to restore the base funding that was withdrawn from universities in the 1990s, and these funds need to be spent on hiring more professors. Only then will Canadian students once again receive the benefit of a real education, and only then will all citizens receive the economic benefit of an educated workforce.
D. Gregory MacIsaac
Assistant Professor of Humanities, Carleton University
Ottawa, ON

Aha! In the arid landscape of your public policy pages, I caught a rare glimpse of the egregious False Dichotomy, an endangered species endemic to economic arguments. Roger Martin would have us believe that we must choose between health care and education. Why not between health care and cat food, or health care and video games? He, and other leaders of Canadian business and management schools, should be congratulated for establishing captive breeding programs for this and many other logically challenged species of thought.
Bruce Burrows
Sointula, BC

Roger Martin argues that Canada’s commitment to public health spending has shortchanged our investment in education over the last decade and a half, and he has summarized this data in a graph labeled “Public Health and Education Expenditure.” In fact, most of the health spending represented in this chart has gone towards curative medical care. “Public health” as most of us understand it — disease prevention and community health efforts — represents only a minuscule portion of health funding on the federal and provincial levels. This is disappointing, because programs devoted to tobacco control and nutritional policies, for example, could save our health care system billions of dollars. Instead of calling for the redirection of health care funds to education, perhaps we should be arguing in favour of real public health initiatives that will help citizens contribute to a much-needed Canadian knowledge economy.
Dr. Garry Aslanyan
World Health Organization
Geneva, Switzerland

Although I appreciate Roger Martin’s critique of the systematic disinvestment in public education (a threat to our “future prosperity”), I wonder why he used publicly funded health care, of all things, as an example of “pure consumption.” (I thought military spending would have been a better fit, since these expenditures benefit only a small chunk of the population and reflect the values of a specific group.) He subjects health care to cold economic logic, suggesting that fixing a baby’s heart is less a moral imperative than a way to churn out a “productive member of society.”
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2 comment(s)

GaiamDecember 09, 2009 01:11 EST

It seems that Alberta’s intellectual shortfall has risen higher than anyone could have predicted during Klein’s ascent in the early 1990s.

owl city musicDecember 27, 2009 00:37 EST

"Who Killed Canada’s Education Advantage?"'s trailer http://www.vimeo.com/6984408

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