The school you attend impacts you for a lifetime

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, June 15, 2023
The school you attend impacts you for a lifetime

As the schoolyear winds down, many high school graduates are looking forward to their first year of post-secondary education in the fall. Everyone knows that some universities are better than others. That’s why students compete fiercely to get admitted to top-tier universities. A degree from a prestigious institution opens far more doors than the same degree from a lesser-known institution. We cannot pretend that these differences don’t exist.

And yet, when it comes to K-12 education, we often hear that one public school is as good as another. How else are we to interpret the fierce opposition of teacher unions to any type of school ranking? As far as unions are concerned, the solution to all things ailing public education is to pour more money into the system. The last thing they want to hear is that some schools are better than others.

However, the notion that all public schools are equally good at educating students is demonstrably false. For example, research conducted by John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, shows that the quality of teachers has a huge impact on student achievement. Schools with high-quality teachers produce superior outcomes to those with lower-quality teachers.

And now we know that these superior outcomes aren’t temporary; the effects do not fade over time. In fact, according to new research by Jennifer Manly and Dominika Šeblová from Columbia University, the benefits of attending a better school last a lifetime.

Manly and Šeblová examined more than 2,000 adults who attended high school in the 1960s and found that people who attended higher-quality schools (defined primarily as schools with a higher number of teachers with graduate training) performed better in tests of cognitive function later in life than those who attended lower-quality schools. In other words, the impact of a good education can still be observed many decades later.

Obviously, there’s much more to a good school than simply ensuring that teachers have graduate training. In a literature review on teacher effectiveness, Rodney Clifton, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, notes that effective teachers ensure that curricula are coherent and consistently taught, enforce fair and consistent classroom policies, ensure students remain on-task, and are well-educated in the disciplines they teach. The schools with the highest number of effective teachers are most likely to provide students with a quality education.

Sadly, in far too many cases a family’s postal code determines the quality of school their children attend. The implications are sobering, since we now know that attending a lower-quality school potentially puts students at a disadvantage for their entire life. Hence the push by teacher unions to spend more money on public education.

However, before we rush to open the spending taps, remember that while countries that spend the least on education do indeed improve education outcomes when spending is increased, the same cannot be said about wealthier countries such as Canada. In fact, when we compare student achievement among provinces, there’s no correlation between academic achievement and higher per-student spending.

In this case, we must keep the main point in mind. Our goal should be to ensure that all students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can attend high-quality schools.

Wealthy parents won’t let their children languish in low-quality public schools—they will either move to a different neighbourhood or enroll their children in an independent school where they can be assured of a high-quality education.

Unfortunately, poor parents have fewer options since often they cannot afford to move, and they find it difficult to pay for school tuition at independent schools—even though many non-elite independent schools have relatively modest tuition fees. As a result, they remain in failing schools and the cycle continues.

It's time we break the cycle. Provinces should make it possible for students to attend the schools of their choice, whether that’s a public school, charter school or independent school. In other words, let the money follow the student to virtually any school the parents choose. This way parents can ensure their children receive a good education early in life.

All parents in Canada, not just those with large bank accounts, should be able to get a quality education for their children. The benefits of this approach will last a lifetime.

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