Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Money Rut

I am a parent of three children, only the oldest of whom is in school. He attends grade one, so we are in the midst of our second year of experience with the public education system here in Calgary. There is one theme that, far beyond any other, stands out to me and that is: Money. The province talks about money, the teachers' union talks about money, the school talks about money and the school council, more than anything else, talks about money.

I first developed a keen interest in education well after I graduated from the public education system. As I developed ideas about parenting, teaching and learning, I felt that I identified with a certain philosophy of education (which readers of Joe Bower's blog will understand). But it wasn't until my first child entered the system that I understood how byzantine and resource-hungry that system is. We've been fortunate to have caring and responsive teachers and principals so far. Besides being asked to make donations to the classroom, we have also been welcomed to participate inside the classroom and on field trips. I have gotten the feeling that, to a certain extent, the educators "get it." They understand, in the way I hoped they would, the importance of exploration over instruction and the value of curiosity over compliance.

But something funny happens when education staff are no longer in contact with children. The focus shifts from the needs of the students to making demands of students and teachers and mandating compliance. And this is where the grasping for more money seems to come up. I attended a school council meeting last week, and they spent a large portion of the meeting bemoaning the lack of funds and the lack of parent involvement in fundraising. They insightfully brought up an important question: What is the purpose of school council? The first answer was to support the administration financially. I said nothing, because the conversation quickly moved on to envisioning the kind of school parents would like: more volunteer opportunities, more interaction with teachers, more communication with the school. I am convinced that the focus on the need for money distracts from this more meaningful conversation.

I am unfamiliar with the workings of school boards outside of Calgary. However, money is a big issue with our school board. Just like the parents on school council who feel unequal to the task of raising and handling large amounts of money, the trustees seem uncomfortable inspiring a culture of stewardship. Two examples that arose during the trustee election (but ultimately didn't affect the outcome) were the long-term lease of "the Palace," as their new admin offices have come to be called, as well as the annual subsidy of a foundation, EducationMatters, that raises only a small fraction of the amount of money it receives from the board. The board, for their part, seems to feel helpless in the face of a lack of stability of funding from the province. The province, relying on resource revenue, feels unable to commit to a dependable funding model.

Parents, unfortunately, are caught in the middle of this bureaucratic tug-of-war. We see the board as unresponsive and possibly wasteful with resources. We see the stress this puts on the administration of
our community schools. We see the province and their unreliability in providing funding and the stress this places on teachers. The last thing we want is for these stresses to affect our children. But we
need to balance this with outside demands that our children absorb a large amount of information and regurgitate it on standardized tests. 

While I am sure that there are parents who believe we should demand more of the government, more of our board, more of our teachers and more of our kids, I worry about the human cost. I don't want schools in one neighborhood to be stronger because they have a greater ability to raise funds. I don't want teachers to burn out within five years of joining the profession, leaving the more detached to continue. I don't want to have to rely on cooperating with parents who have become cynical about having any input into public education, based on years of disappointment. But most of all, I don't want kids who graduate from high school, knowing a little about a lot, but knowing next to nothing about themselves.

It isn't money that allows children to follow their interests, cooperate on projects that they determine and present their outcomes in a way that is meaningful to them. Money is necessary to keep the system running, but focusing solely on money distracts us from some of the more important questions. What kinds of people do we want our students to become? What do our children need, not in twenty years,
but now? What kind of relationships do we want to have between parents, teachers, administrators and politicians? I know what my answers are, now I want to hear what answers other members of the public bring to this important conversation.


  1. This is a terrific piece. He's right of course, money drives many of the decisions made in education.

    For example, standardized testing tends to be multiple choice, not because this is an effective way to measure what students know, but because it is cost-effective, and efficient.

  2. I agree this is a very thoughtful piece and, for the most part, I agree. There is too much talk about money and the public education systems throughout Canada need to be funded appropriately in order to support ALL students.

    However, I do think the statement that once an educator loses contact with kids "something funny" happens to them is an overgeneralization that is neither accurate nor productive. As someone who has worked at Central Office for 2 years I can promise you nothing funny has happened to me. I care as much for the students in my district as I every have. In fact, now I'm in a position to influence an entire district rather than just my school. Something funny might happen to individuals, but it is a stretch to suggest that once a person loses even full-time contact with kids (i.e. administrators) that they somehow don't get it anymore. I don't think ALL teachers would appreciate being categorized by the 1 or 2 teachers who rip out of the parking lot at 3:01 either; that's not the norm.

    Money shouldn't drive all of our decisions, but the reality is that there is not a limitless budget so decisions have to be made. When I first started 20 years ago there wasn't enough time nor enough money to do everything we needed to do; it's just worse now. Thanks!

  3. Joe, You spoke my mind on how the conversation about what really matters gets lost when it gets kicked upstairs to an adult level, which then turns into liberals vs conservative and still so many kids are not being served. I especially like your: "But most of all, I don't want kids who graduate from high school, knowing a little about a lot, but knowing next to nothing about themselves." (actually, my fear is that they don't even know a little about a lot--they have just been exposed to..some stuff.)

    It is up to educators like us to define hot to measure what matters so that those who are feeling accountable for "results" (a funny word in the education business) have something to report to those they need to report to. (As I wrote this morning, it was as easy as could be to evaluate the quality of the education going on at two schools I visited simply by looking at the enthusiasm of the students for learning. That's measurable.

    My post (up later today) has a working title of: "What Do Good Parents and Good Schools Have in Common?" It points to the cultural context for schools to be the kind of creative environments we want.

    thanks again. Another good one.

  4. tomschimmer, I appreciate your comment and I agree with your point that "something funny" does not happen to people. Please recall that my view is from the outside. In my snapshot view of the school system, the more removed employees are from the classroom, the more removed they are from the needs of the children. I am sure that you are correct in pointing out that this does not happen as a dynamic to individual people over time. And any generalization necessarily treats individuals unfairly.

    Money has to be handled responsibly. A school system that can't even do that has no chance of success. But being adequately funded isn't enough to ensure success. I wish there were more public conversation around the other things we can do to support children and teens in their quest to create meaning in life. I'm sorry I ruffled your feathers, as I meant no disrespect. Our schools are blessed with, for the majority, dedicated and caring people.

  5. No feathers ruffled Robert...I'm a big boy...and I didn't feel disrespected; just thought he blanket statement was too targeted. I agree with you. I have met central office staff who are distant from student needs; I have also met classroom teachers who are the same. I think it is mindset that puts kids first...period...regardless of role or title. The difficulty is that C.O. staff & trustees are the ones who have to make those decisions so they take the heat...comes with the job!



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