Opinion

BC Public Education, a Success Story

There's always room to improve, but next time you hear public schools are deteriorating consider these facts.

By Charles Ungerleider 8 Sep 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Ungerleider divides his time between The University of British Columbia, where he is a professor of the sociology of education, and Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, where he is managing partner.

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Killarney school mural in progress, Vancouver, B.C. Photo by darryl k. from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

In the context of last year's labour-management conflicts in education, it is inevitable that questions about the quality of public schooling in B.C. will be highlighted in the media. There are at least two reasons for this renewed interest in the quality of schooling. One reason is the conflict itself. We do not like conflict and are especially sensitive to it when children and youth are involved. When conflicts arise among those with significant responsibilities for public schooling, we are apt to worry about the potential for negative impact on students.

A second reason is that, in the heat of conflict, some parties succumb to rhetorical excess and hyperbole. The claims take many forms along the lines of "Students with special needs are falling (or will fall) between the cracks..." or "Funding shortfalls threaten quality education...."

Contrary to such claims, B.C.'s public education is a success story. For the past decade or more, British Columbia has ranked among the top performing jurisdictions in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment. For example, In 2009, out of the 75 jurisdictions involved in the assessment only three outperformed B.C. in reading, nine in mathematics and three in science.

A number of factors contribute to B.C.'s successful system of public schooling. These factors include quality teachers and the efforts made to reduce drop-out rates and ensure that students are engaged and successful. B.C.'s public schools perform at consistently high levels within a context where equity in school outcomes is prized and generally achieved. This is one of our public school system's greatest, though rarely mentioned, achievements.

Improvements, and room for more

While there are students for whom the promise of school success goes unfulfilled, there are far fewer such students today than in the past. Forty years ago, public schools were less diverse and less willing and able to accommodate students with special needs or students for whom English or French was not a first language. Moreover, in terms of performance, B.C.'s schools were near the middle of the pack internationally.

Today, schools enrol a more diverse student population and many students with significant learning challenges. Nonetheless, B.C. performs near the top of the international pack. A larger proportion of the student population stays in school until graduation, takes challenging course work, and goes on to further study today than 40 years ago.

Some parents ask whether their child would fare better in private schools where there are few (public) labour-management conflicts. The evidence from international assessments indicates that they would not. Comparisons of the performance of students from families with similar socio-economic backgrounds in public and private schools indicate equivalent performance.

There is no little irony in the fact that the conflicts and tensions that are focused on arise from the very conditions that enable B.C. public education to sustain a high quality teaching force. The quality of our teachers is at least in part a result of the good salaries and working conditions that have emerged from the collective bargaining processes. These conditions attract high-quality candidates to the profession. Yet it is inevitable that these salaries and working conditions will come under fire when there is a fiscal crisis.

B.C.'s public schools have been imperfectly successful. There is much room for improvement for many students, including students of Aboriginal ancestry, students from some ethno-linguistic groups, and students who enter school with significant physical and cognitive challenges. Our schools do well for a growing majority of students, but it is easy to lose sight of that when the news is focused primarily on conflict.  [Tyee]

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