Thursday, February 23, 2012

Funds spent on teachers good for real learning

Jonathan Teghtmeyer

This was written by Jonathan Teghtmeyer who is with the Alberta Teachers` Association.This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website

A troubling narrative is emerging from school boards. According to some superintendents and school board trustees, 80 per cent of education spending goes to employee costs—salary, wages and benefits. The subtext of this narrative is that employee costs are out of control, they have increased over the years and if only we can control employee costs then more money can be directed toward students.

Not only is this narrative damaging to the teaching profession and others in the education sector, but the figure on which it’s based is inaccurate.

According to Alberta Education’s 2010/11 audited financial statements, $4.5 billion was spent on salaries, wages and employee benefits against total expenses of $6.7 billion. In other words, 67 per cent of funds was spent on people.

Other ways of calculation might increase that figure, but none drives it up to 80 per cent. If you look at the expenses of school boards, they spent $4.4 billion on employee costs out of a budget of $5.9 billion—a ratio of 74 per cent. Digging deeper, we find that school boards spent $3.2 billion of $5.9 billion on salaries and benefits for certificated staff—showing that teacher costs are only 54 per cent of school board expenses.

A few people have stated that not only are employment costs rising, but that 10 years ago costs were 20 per cent less. Actually, the proportion of board expenses related to employees has remained largely stable over time.

This troubling narrative implies that the portion of the budget not spent on salaries is what makes a difference in the level of education that students receive, thus suggesting that money spent on employees doesn’t make a difference for students. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Money spent on employees puts teachers in classrooms and funds teaching assistants who work with students with special needs. It pays for librarians, counsellors and support staff, who ensure that schools operate smoothly and meet the needs of our students. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that employee costs are significant. Education is a service industry delivered by educated professionals and qualified support staff. The best investment for students comes by adding to the employee cost side of the budget.

While some of the remaining 20 per cent is spent on textbooks or technology, it’s also spent on transportation, energy costs, provincial testing, governance and system administration. But surrounding students with tools (pencils, paper, textbooks and computers) doesn’t guarantee meaningful learning. It is the adults in the school who spark the fuse of learning and ensure that inanimate tools become instruments for discovery. The role of the teacher as catalyst is critical to learning.

More than anything, in a world of infinite information from a ­multitude of sources, the skills to search, sort, filter, adjudicate and analyze information become paramount. While students may be able to access information without the direct instruction of teachers, they will require more guidance, supervision and mentorship than ever before. Teachers will be required to plan curriculum objectives, guide students by implementing learning strategies, assist with the synthesis of information and evaluate the learning outcomes. As these activities become more personalized, students will require more one-on-one time with teachers, which is money well spent. And that is good for education.

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