School Choice: Maintaining the Hierarchies

“Neo-liberal policies involving market solutions may actually serve to reproduce – not subvert – traditional hierarchies of class and race” — Michael W. Apple

Christy Clark, the new Premier in British Columbia, has long been an advocate of increasing the opportunities for parents to choose schools for their children.  Most people’s response to this is that it sounds good – parents should be able to make a decision on which school best meets the needs of their child.  In an ideal world, this may work but more questions arise as we look deeper into who truly benefits from school choice.

As most of you know, I believe the autonomy to choose is extremely important in life.   Students, staff, and parents need to be provided with equal opportunity to choose how to do things in life.  The key word in the previous statement is EQUAL.

When we think about school choice, who does it actually benefit?  If a parent is to choose a school away from their neighbourhood school, they must have some of the following:

  • a school nearby (within driving distance)

    Only if you have the capital....

    Only if you have the capital....

  • the cultural capital to discuss school choice and knowledge of options
  • a vehicle for transportation to another school
  • a parent available to drive to another school
  • the finances to be able to pay for private schools or academies (ie. sports academies in BC) as well as transportation

So I ask the question again: who does school choice truly benefit?  The answer: students from middle-class urban households.  It would be fantastic to be able to drive across town to participate in a Sports Academy – but the student must have access to a number of assets before he/she can even consider this option.  I do not blame any parent for making informed decisions that best suit the educational needs of the child; in fact, I think parents need to be MORE involved in educational decisions.  But how does school choice benefit a child from a family without a vehicle? One that cannot afford the tuition to a private school or BC academy? One that lives in a rural community in which the next school is hours away? One that has a single parent working two jobs?  From a different angle, if students are choosing to attend schools outside of their neighbourhood, what does this do to the community sense of schools (although this argument will be discussed at another time)?

At my previous school, I attempted to bring the Hockey Canada Academy to my school (at a cost of almost $1000/student each semester).  The idea is fantastic; students are provided with the opportunity to participate in something in which they are passionate.  Unfortunately, as I grew as an educator I began to realize that not ALL students are provided with the opportunity – only those that have the capital.  Why is it acceptable that only students who can afford choice schools are provided with the opportunity?

We are now seeing schools and districts compete for students.  Parents are provided with Fraser Institute Rankings, ‘standardized’ test scores (that are often marked by their own schools), a variety of academies (that often come with an tuition cost), specialized schools, ‘traditional’ schools, and an option of attending an independent school (based on religion, culture, specialization, etc).  Schools that refuse to market themselves, teach to the test, or compete with others schools are sometimes seeing parents choose to send their child elsewhere.  Apple (2001) states that there is a “crucial shift in emphasis… from student needs to student performance and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school.”  He also goes on to say that “more time and energy is spent on maintaining or enhancing a public image of a ‘good school’ and less time and energy is spent on pedagogic and curricular substance”.

As stated, I am not against choice in education.  However, this choice must be available to ALL students so every student in BC is provided with equal opportunity for a ‘personalized learning’ experience.  This means that if districts are going to provide specialized schools and academies, all students within the district must be provided with access – in particular, transportation and funding.  This also means that rural schools must be provided with funding to be able to provide students with learning opportunities comparable to students in urban communities.

Premier Christy Clark’s education plan includes (from “Christy Clark’s Education Vision: More School Choice”:

  • Support independent and faith-based schools, and promote public-school academies focusing on sports and arts. (She has long been a strong proponent of school choice; her nine-year-old son attends an independent school.)
  • Keep the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) (our provincial standardized test that is used to publish and rank schools)
  • Enhance and emphasize math and science, including promoting province-wide competitions to recognize excellence in those fields.
  • Publish detailed information about school programs, achievements, operations and facilities on school-district websites so parents can make informed choices.

I see similarities from Apple (2001), in discussing the US situation, when he states “We are witnessing a process in which the state shifts the blame for the very evident inequalities in access and outcome it has promised to reduce, from itself on to individual schools, parents, and children.” Ball (1993) also states “markets in education provide the possibility for the pursuit of class advantage and generate a differentiated and stratified system of schooling”.    A great blog post from Ira Socol also touches on this issue as he writes,

So parent-based systems reward the haves. They have choices because they have funds, knowledge, transportation, the ability to even home school. And the have-nots are punished. Those children have parents without access to information, without access to transportation (and thus charter choice), without access to their own successful educations as a support system.

School choice, as it is now in BC, does not solve the real problems of the hierarchies of class and race that exist within the current system – they actually maintain them.  Unfortunately, we often only hear the voices of those with the cultural capital to speak on behalf of their children and we don’t hear the voices of the marginalized.   When we hear that a solution to our education system challenges is school choice, we need to question where this voice is coming from – is it a voice that speaks on behalf of ALL students or just his/her child?

Clark also goes on to say, “My proposals are designed to involve all the stakeholders in creating a kindergarten to 12 system that truly reflects the needs of students.”  I am not sure how providing school choice is a way to involve ALL stakeholders and meet the needs of ALL students.   Ravitch (2008) writes that “Democratic education [means] that everyone must be educated as if they were children of the most advantaged members of society”.  I realize that the funding formula in BC currently encourages schools/districts to compete for students so they are often forced in the direction of promoting school choice.  Most will agree that our system needs to change but school choice, the way it is currently designed in BC, benefits primarily the students from advantaged families; schools need to collaborate, rather than compete, and be adequately funded so programs are not cut but are created so as to offer ALL students within each school REAL choice in their education.


Apple, M.W. (2001) Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education, Comparative Education, 37(4), 409-423

Ball, S.J. (1993) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and USA, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(1), 3-19

Ravitch, D.R. (2008) Education and Democracy: The United States as a Historical Case Study, in Coulter, D.L. & Weins, J.R. (Eds) Why Do We Educate?  Renewing the Conversation, pp. 42-57 (Blackwell Publishing, Mass, USA)


A deeper look into school rankings

As a teacher I never paid much attention to the annual Fraser Institute Rankings; when our school did well, people applauded and when our school fared poorly, people raised questions.  The interesting part for me was that we had the same staff and same curriculum, yet our rankings changed year over year.

When I became a principal, parents began to ask me about our FSA results and Fraser Institute Ranking.  I cannot say that I am now actually interested in this harmful process but I do feel I need to comment.

The latest rankings state that our school is ranked 761/876 schools in the Province of BC.  Lets look a bit deeper into the “data” the FI has used to determine this ranking.  The primary piece of data that is used for these rankings are the results of our FSA tests that our grade 4’s wrote in February of 2009.  Last year, parents had the option of requesting their children being exempted from writing this test; a letter was sent home from the Teachers’ Association explaining this.  Many of our parents were concerned about the educational value of this test so only 27 out of 58 students wrote the test; LESS THAN HALF of our students were included in the data used for the FI rankings.  On the FSA reports website, it states that only 29% of our students were meeting /exceeding expectations; in actuality, 17/27 students that wrote were meeting/exceeding.  I am no statistician but I do know that 17/27 is much higher than 29%!  In addition, a large number of the students that did not write were students who, on their report cards, were in the C+ or higher range – meaning that they were meeting expectations – so if they had written this test, it would have helped our results and our ranking, although it still would not change my view of the rankings.

Each year, the principal works with parents to develop the school goals.  Our main goal is to help each student to ‘develop his/her unique talents and interest and leave our school as a confident learner’.   Spending weeks on a test does not really align with our goal and we could not even use the resulting data from 2009 because we know that with that few students writing the tests, the data had little use.  ( I will avoid sharing my views on the test itself but if you would like to discuss this with me, please contact me at any time!).  Using this data to represent our school makes it seem like we have taught all our students for a number of years.   We had 4 students register at the school in January and February of 2009 and they wrote the FSA for our school.  How can we use the data that tests students who we have barely had the chance to work with?  A more valid and reliable form of data to assess literacy would be to test the students who have actually been at our school for at least 60% of the education.  If we looked at these students, they would have had the opportunity to obtain support to increase learning through a variety of teaching methods.  (Having said this, if we tested our schools/students this way, we would also be testing the impact of remaining in the same school for a number of years.)

I am not opposed to using data/evidence to help determine school goals but this data must be valid, reliable and not used to rank schools.  Michael Fullan, a respected author and educational researcher has been working with the Ministry of Education in Ontario to develop valid and reliable assessments; he has an agreement that any data from schools is NOT to be used to rank schools due to the harm that it creates in the system.

Looking at the rankings on a broader scale, schools are expected to maintain/improve their test results year over year; this becomes a challenge when, at our school, the school counseling position, learning assistance teaching support time, administrative time (principal and vice principal’s opportunity to work with students), special education assistant time, library teaching time, the lunch program, field trips, and learning resources have all been cut to an all-time low.  At our school, we continue to do more with less and I am very proud of what all our staff and students achieve.  Our successful art, physical education, science, music, culture, and extra-curricular programs are not included in the rankings and these are some parts of education, in addition to numeracy and literacy, that we truly value.

Someone once said that “ranking schools based on a test score is no different than ranking dentists based on the number of cavities”.  What they were commenting on is the fact that so many other factors come in to play when assessing children and their schools: socio-economic status, access to resources, funding, student nutrition/health, urban vs suburban vs rural schools, student transition rate (how often students move to and from schools), parent education, home situations, etc.  How can schools accurately be ranked when there are so many variables?  I teach my grade 5 science students to always ensure their experiments are a “fair test”; even they would tell you that there are far too many variables to consider the assessment of schools (based on one test) a “fair test”.  With this, comparing schools throughout the province is not helpful at all; can our school be effectively compared to a “choice” school in Abbotsford, a rural school in Fort St. James, a school in the British Properties, or a private school with a tuition of tens of thousand dollars a year?  We always look at ways to improve our school but we do not look at schools that are that dissimilar and say ‘we need to do what they are doing’.

We have a school, like most others, that has a number of unique challenges; many of these all help to make our school so great!  As the saying goes, “the greater the challenge, the greater the triumph!”.  I, along with the staff, look forward to coming to school every day to learn alongside with the students and work with other staff, parents, and community members to continue to increase student learning.

There is no ranking for student happiness nor is there a ranking for true education (one that leads to a healthy, worthwhile life); what I can tell you is that Kent School is a great school and if you ever want to rank us, spend a week, month, or year with our staff and students – you will never rank us that low again.  Better yet, if the Fraser Institute actually spent time in a school, they would soon realize that it is better to not rank at all.