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Alberta not immune to inequality

February 24, 2015 Kim Dewar, ATA News Staff

David Berliner speaks during a panel session at the Northeast Teachers' Conference on Feb. 12. The panel also included ATA President Mark Ramsankar, former premier and education minister Dave Hancock and well-known Finnish researcher Pasi Sahlberg.

No easy fix to complex problem, panelists say

It comes as no surprise to teachers that Alberta is not immune to poverty, despite the province’s status as the 10th wealthiest place on the planet.

This observation was part of the opening remarks by Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar at a panel discussion held Feb. 13 at the Northeast Teachers’ Convention in Edmonton.

Ramsankar said teachers, in their classrooms, have a “front row seat” to this reality and are witnesses to the impact that it has on children and their families.

In Alberta, one in six children (or 143,000) live in poverty, and with the student population expected to grow by three per cent in the next year, the numbers will only increase and teachers will notice the effects in the classroom, Ramsankar said. Add to that the Alberta government’s notice that it will cut provincial spending by nine per cent and teachers will face unprecedented challenges in their working environments, he said.

“As teachers and educators we must continue to advocate for sustainable, predictable resourcing of schools, to try to meet the needs of children.”

Ramsankar was joined on the panel by David Berliner, an author and education professor at Arizona State University; Dave Hancock, Alberta’s former education minister; and Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator, author and scholar.

Growing gap

Berliner warned that, in North America, 50 per cent of the wealth is owned by one per cent of the population and while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. In fact, the United States ranks number one in terms of income inequality, he said.

In terms of the effects on education, across the country, students’ Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores can be predicted by their family’s income, he said. He outlined performance scores of children who were wealthy versus those who were poor. Students from higher income families performed better than their peers from less wealthy families, his data showed.

Berliner emphasized that these results have nothing to do with the curriculum or the quality of teachers and everything to do with family wealth.

“These kids are living in enormously different worlds,” he said.

The long-term consequences of this disparity include a growing separation between the academic achievements of one social class over another, and more opportunities — both socially and economically — for the higher achieving, wealthier students.

The growing class divide in the United States is alarming, but Berliner warned that Canada, which sits in the middle of the pack of wealthy countries in terms of income inequality, could soon match its southern neighbour.

Better supports needed

What does this mean for Alberta’s education system?

Hancock agreed that the income gap in Alberta is significant, but he asserted that it’s not something that government can fix in the short term, nor is it an easy issue to solve.

“We don’t do well by trying to attack the social equation that we have, but we do succeed in recognizing that education is the value product that will help our children have a better quality of life,” Hancock said.

From a long-term perspective, Alberta’s emphasis must be on providing better support for such programs as early childhood development and diagnostics, and all-day kindergarten, Hancock said. There is a significant amount of research showing that these services are extremely effective in altering outcomes for students, but the problem lies in the implementation.

“The place for action on this is actually in schools,” Hancock said. “The place where kids spend most of their time, build trust relationships and disclose what is happening in their life is in the school. We really do need to build the wraparound supports in our schools.”

He acknowledged that teachers are not necessarily equipped to deal with all the issues that land in their classrooms, but with the help of a collaborative team of supports, a school-based solution is ideal. The problem, however, is there never seems to be enough resources to implement the initiatives that would make a difference, he said.

Complicated issue

Sahlberg echoed Berliner’s and Hancock’s assertions that equity is a major concern of school systems around the world and that closing the income gap is important for the continued success of Alberta’s school system. However, he acknowledged that “enhancing equity in any society or education system, whether it’s here or in Finland, is complicated.”

Addressing the issue is not simply a matter of improving the quality of services made available to students through schools, he said, adding that it’s harder to design an education policy that focuses on closing the gap or enhancing equity than it is to focus on improving teaching or curriculum.

“The challenge lies in creating systemic public and social policy frameworks that will ensure there are opportunities for every child in every school.” ❚

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