Pathways for post-COVID recovery and reinvigoration in the schooling sector

Professor Don A. Klinger, University of Waikato

I was recently on a panel with Michael Johnston (New Zealand Initiative) and Alexandre Fernandes de Oliveira (International Finance Corporation) as part of the University of Waikato New Zealand Economics Forum. As panelists, we were asked to discuss the impacts of the long tail of COVID on education. The three of us agreed that:

  • The COVID pandemic has had a real impact on the education of our children
  • The impact on children’s education has not been equal and will have both short- and long-term implications.
  • Schools have a critical role in addressing the educational inequities that pandemic has created.

However, we three panelists did disagree on how we should address these challenges, and in particular on the relative roles of private and public education as the best ways forward. In this blog post, I share my central argument that the challenges COVID has created, which will endure for some time, must be fundamentally addressed through our public education system if it is to benefit the greatest possible proportion of our young people who have been affected by the global pandemic.

My background and stance

I am a professor of education and measurement (assessment), and because we were speaking at an economics forum, I felt the need to first state that while I had a long background as an educator, I should not be dismissed as “just another left-wing socialist with no understanding of finances or economics”! Education is undoubtedly resource-intensive, and so I have long argued that education—including public education—has to be run in a more business-like, financially responsible manner to ensure it does not become an ever-increasing drain on our society’s financial resources.

I support the need for responsible economic stewardship, but I really struggle when economic perspectives on education are used to justify competitive approaches to enhancing education quality rather than a fundamental “social responsibility” framework. These competitive approaches recruit students via the promotion of a specific “charter” or educational advantage for those attending the school, and student entry into the school is restricted to those who demonstrate the (often poorly-defined) requirements for admission. The belief is that such competitive models will lead to systematic educational improvements and higher quality education for all. As an analogy, it could be argued that competition has resulted in improvements in the quality of cars we drive, but it is quite obvious there are massive differences in the quality of cars on our roads today.

In contrast, a “social responsibility” approach to education is based on the belief that every child deserves to have access to a high level of education, and that this may require a shifting of educational resources to provide increased learning equity. Using the analogy above, there may continue to be ongoing differences in automotive standards, but every car meets a high standard for operation. The inequities brought to the forefront by COVID-19 highlight the importance of a social responsibility approach as the best pathway out of the long tail of COVID.

Learning from other school systems: How can we support success for ALL learners?

As a researcher who has long examined the uses and misuses of large-scale testing and the factors associated with educational outcomes, I have long been interested in finding ways to ensure all our students have the opportunity for success, regardless of how we define success. Hence, much of my research and statistical modeling in education have explored the issues of educational equity and opportunity. I have often stated, “If you want to observe the best education in the world, look to the USA”. There is a reason the USA has produced more Nobel Prize winners than the next 6 countries combined—they have some simply remarkable schools and colleges producing exceptional thinkers. However, I have also said, “If you want to observe the worst education in the world, look to the USA.” The particular school a child attends in the USA will have a significant impact on that child’s educational success. In the USA, schools matter. As a result, there is a steep “between-school effect” from the lowest to highest performing schools, even after accounting for student level factors, and students are significantly advantaged or disadvantaged by the schools they happen to attend.

In contrast, countries such as Canada, Estonia, and Finland exhibit both high educational standards and much greater equity in terms of educational outcomes. Between-school effects are much smaller in these countries, and so the particular school a child attends has much less impact on their educational outcomes. Quality seems to be high across schools. Admittedly, Finland’s largely monoculture may partially explain this finding; however, this is not the case in Canada or Estonia. This is not to argue that inequities do not exist at all in Canada, Estonia, or Finland, but these countries do demonstrate that it is possible to achieve both relatively high educational quality and relatively high educational equity at the same time.

Statistically, Aotearoa New Zealand looks more like the USA than Canada or Finland in terms of educational quality and equity, and I argue this is a significant challenge. Regardless of how we define success and the educational outcomes we measure, there is a substantial proportion of children in Aotearoa NZ—typically between 15 to 30%—who are not meeting the standards we believe are critical for their development. This is a large proportion of our children, and to make matters worse, these inequities are not random. Rather, there is a long list of factors associated with these systematic inequities: teacher readiness and skills; home learning resources, internet, dedicated learning spaces, ethnicity, family and community supports. These factors are all critical, and all largely beyond the control of the students themselves.

Addressing the inequities heightened by COVID: Competition or differentiation?

The COVID pandemic, then, layers its effects on top of the already-existing inequalities within NZ’s education system. COVID and its long tail will very likely exacerbate these existing inequities, adding intensity to the need for change. We are only just beginning to see the short-term educational impacts of the pandemic, with as yet only speculation about what the long-term impacts might be. For example, it has been suggested that students may have experienced a loss of 1/3 of a year of education so far, with flow-on effects for their future income at an individual level and, thus, GDP reductions at a wider societal level (see here and here). It is not hard to predict that these negative impacts will disproportionately impact those who were already facing greater inequities rather than being evenly distributed across the population.    

And this is where competitive educational models are problematic. Competitive models highlighted by private, or in New Zealand our state-integrated schools, tend to distribute resources based on current size and success, not on need. Families who have the resources—or children who have found success despite challenges—have greater access to these schools and benefit from the increased resourcing and opportunities, while those who cannot are left to struggle. “The rich get richer” may be a good model for business competition, but it is not a good model for education.

In order to reduce the impact of these current inequities, we need to differentially distribute resources to our schools. New Zealand has created a set of school funding components meant to more equitably distribute financial resources, but such models tend to be overly formulaic. These methods do not provide sufficient distribution of needed resources. In particular, resources and research-supported professional learning must be increasingly directed to those educators in the public system who are most likely to face these inequities, and educators need to be strongly supported to address these inequities. The government’s recent work toward replacing deciles with an equity index funding model is a step in the right direction but is still insufficient in terms of targeting the supports identified above. Short-term, intensive resourcing has already proven to be effective, as illustrated by efforts to improve the educational outcomes of the lowest performing schools in Ontario. The Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership (OFIP) put Ontario on the map as one of the fastest improving education systems in the world in the early 2010s.

The pathway ahead

The solutions to the educational impacts of COVID will not be simple or quickly answered. They are as complex as the many other efforts we have used, and will need to use in future, to address the multitude of impacts of COVID on our lives. Along with the financial resources that have been directed towards struggling businesses in specific communities experiencing extended lockdowns or protests, I argue that additional educational resources also need to be directed toward our struggling teachers and students. These cohorts are predominantly in publicly funded schools and communities that may not have sufficient access to much needed resources to deal with the long tail of COVID. Our social responsibility towards publicly funded education is to make sure they do.  

Professor Don A. Klinger is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Te Wānanga Toi Tangata Division of Education at the University of Waikato. A former educator, educational coordinator, and school administrator, Professor Klinger also spent 17 years at Queen’s University, Kingston as a researcher and Associate Dean of Research, becoming a leading measurement and assessment scholar. His research explores measurement theory and the use of assessments to support teaching, learning and policy across educational contexts. Professor Klinger is especially interested in efforts to identify and reduce learning inequities exposed through large-scale measures of educational outcomes. Throughout his work, Don builds connections amongst academic and professional communities to promote and facilitate educational research and informed practice. Amongst his accomplishments, Professor Klinger co-chaired the writing of the Classroom Assessment Standards, and he served as the president for the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE/SCEE).

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