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Sunday, April 19, 2009

What the Public Wants From Public Education.

My firm, Cambridge Strategies Inc., recently finished a community based research project for the Edmonton Public School Board as part of their work on improving their processes school closure and system sustainability.

Our goal was to find out relative value preferences on the role of public schools by the citizens of Edmonton. We used a technique called Discrete Choice Modeling which requires value trade-offs to be made that determines relative value preferences and the degree of commitment to such preferences.

We always make value trade-offs in the real world that determines real preferences between competing interests. That is why this research technique is so much better than mere opinion polling that only gives a snapshot but also lack any depth of insight behind in value drivers of the “opinions” in traditional polling.

We surveyed on seven value attributes with 706 Edmontonians that profiled the Stats Can demographic profile of Edmonton in early December 2008. We compared the following value attributes: proximity of schools, the programming of schools, the use of school facilities, costs and space issues, the educational focus, the operating structure of a school and the size of schools.

We found Edmontonians had two very dominant value preferences they expect of their public education system. All other attributes were equally important but less significant compared to the top two preferences

FOCUS ON EDUCATION: The most dominant value preference was in terms of sustainability of the system. The focus needs to be on the nature of the education being provided with a major emphasis on providing students with skills around creativity, thinking and adaptability. Related to this value was a desire to have schools meet the needs of individual students and prepare them for post-secondary education. Part of this attribute was to create a skilled workforce and prepare students for citizenship.

The focus on test results that is emphasized by some think-tanks and public education critics was not seen as preferred focus of public education. That does not mean test results are not important. It means that they are relatively unimportant compared to other competing values about where the focus of the public education system should be.

PUBLIC EDUCATION AND COMMUNITY NEEDS: The second most significant value driver for public education in Edmonton was in the context of the role of schools to local communities. A decision about closing a school needs to responsive to community needs and the system needs to respond to growth trends in the city. There is a recognition that for a school to stay open there has to be sensitive to enrollment levels and the school to be viable has to be able to provide quality programming. There is no support for just providing a basic 3R’s education and lots of support for extended education programming. Very few were saying a school should stay open regardless of costs.

Meeting community needs included support for schools partnering with others to meet community’s social needs including early childhood education. Schools need to be available to the community for use after hours and to be more integrated into the local community. There was no sympathy for a school to be only focused on exclusively serving the K-12 student population.

There is significant support for schools to provide specialized spaces like shops and music rooms and services like librarians and teacher assistance. This all aligns with achieving the major value drivers of schools focusing on creative education and local community needs. The size of schools and how far they are away were not significant value drivers about what contributes to a quality public education in Edmonton.

DECISION SUPPORT FOR SOUND POLICIES: These findings show a clear path to the future for the EPSB to pursue in how to provide the public want they believe is important to the future of public education. Of course there are costs and resource constraints that do not always make these decisions easy.

Wisdom and judgment by the Board will still have to be exercised in reaching final decisions about the closure of a school. Some things are very clear from this research. If you need to close a school you need to carefull consider the local community needs and how best to use the facilities if they are no longer viable as a school. A focus on providing 21st century skills for students is by far the most preferred destination and direction of our public education system in Edmonton. Moving overtly and effectively to all those ends will ensure continued public support for a successful and sustainable public education system in our city.