Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Conversation: Private Education, Public InterestThe Conversation: Private Education, Public Interest

The Conversation: Private Education, Public Interest

Cardus director of research Ray Pennings discusses a new study of private education and the public interest.

Ray Pennings
12 minute read

In keeping with Cardus' Mandate to renew "Social Architecture" in this country, rather than examining academic achievement, the story looks at the way schools shape students into citizens. Ray Pennings, Cardus Director of Research, discusses with Publisher Peter Stockland why that matters to the common life of Canadians in the long term.

Convivium: Can you give us an overview of the Cardus Education Survey—the team, the overall findings and the methodology?

Ray Pennings: In terms of the objective of the entire project, there were a few parts to what we were trying to do. Parents involved in non-government funded education obviously make tremendous sacrifices. It's a significant financial proposition, and a good number of them are middle-class people, so it's important to ask: what's the return on investment? What are the rewards in later life in terms of forming the sort of graduates that parents aspire for their children to become? So that is where the conversation started.

Then there is the growing awareness of the space for non-government education. There are some who really think government schools are an essential institution and that they are the means by which society is brought together. Some who believe that are becoming increasingly intolerant of any desire for education that takes place outside the government-funded system. So it was also a matter of trying to obtain reliable data in terms of the public contributions of graduates

Those two impulses really started the project a few years ago. Last year, we did an American study. This year, we did a representative Canadian study. We used Vision Critical, a division of Angus Reid, to poll slightly more than 2,000 Canadian [graduates]. We focused on 23- to 39-year-olds and had a representative sampling of public-school graduates, religious-school graduates—Protestant, Catholic—independent non-religious schools and home-schooled graduates. The questionnaire was designed by a research team headed by David Sikkink of the University of Notre Dame. Helping us analyze and interpret the results, we had a team that included Dr. Deani Van Pelt of Redeemer [University College], Dr. Amy von Heyking of the University of Lethbridge, Dr. Harro van Brummelen of Trinity Western, and me. I chaired the process.

When we used the objectives of education as defined by the various provincial education acts, non-government schools were achieving all of the outcomes at equal or greater levels than public schools. By and large, we found that with non-government schools, families were more engaged at the grassroots level in politics, very engaged in environmentalism, very generous in volunteering their time, and involved in their local community. They are really working for the common good, although feeling marginalized and in a hostile environment. Those would be some of the larger themes that emerged.

C: It's an unusual project, isn't it? It's unique in terms of measuring education as a function of citizenship. We're so accustomed to having education measured as a function of academic achievement—how well can you read, how well can you do math, how much physics do you know? But this is really about how education forms citizens.

RP:It is, although when you read the various education acts, it is consistent with the desire for what the outcome of education should be. So rather than putting our own defined outcomes, we did focus very much on what they say about creating a flourishing economy through engaged citizens and all the rest. We used those definitions as the lens through which we interpreted the results. We took what society, through our legislatures, says education is for, and we tried to measure whether the non-government schools were in fact achieving it as well as the government-funded schools. The entire premise was that just because something isn't publicly funded doesn't mean it's not in the public interest. Our argument is that non-government schools are public schools every bit as much as those that are publicly funded.

C: They play a very distinct public role and make a significant public contribution because the people who come out of them are the public...

RP: Exactly. And I think this whole discussion between public and private and our use of the language—in terms of the culture, we have come to think that if you put the adjective 'public' in front of it, it's inherently good. Increasingly, what we also mean is that the government necessarily has a role to play in funding or regulation, whereas 'private' has connotations of elitism and of serving selfish interests rather than those of the common good. What the data show, overwhelmingly, is that when it comes to education, there's a lot of education that happens outside the government systems, and it is public education, for the public good, for the common good, and it is contributing in ways that are probably not generally appreciated.

C: This is really the substance of what Cardus means by 'social architecture' isn't it? It's the boundary between public institutions and the fact that public institutions involve private people who are acting in a public way. It's the underlying architecture of society.

RP: It is that, although I think it's important to change the currency of the debate, because we've had a conversation for too long in this country in which if you were on the left, the answer to every problem started with the words 'the government should,' and so the State was seen as having a very significant role. For those on the right, it was 'individual choice, and the markets will solve everything,' which is really the public-private divide in terms of where we look for solutions. But the reality of life—and all of us understand this from our own experience, but it hasn't translated into our public conversation or the way we carry out public policy—is that there is a host of institutions in between, be they families, community groups, unions, trade associations, businesses, soccer clubs, churches or schools, that have a function and a legitimacy in their own right. They form communities, they develop certain norms, and collectively they shape our society in much the same way as the forces of the market or the forces of the State. And we simply have been ignoring them.

C: The idea here goes way beyond a narrow educational ideal such as schools that emphasize the Three Rs versus those that emphasize whole learning and those debates from the '80s and '90s. It's not just pedagogical method that's important. It's what the kids who come out of our schools, as they grow into adults, are going to become as citizens.

RP: That's one of the reasons that we focused on interviewing 23- to 39-year-olds. We're not measuring, per se, the different pedagogies under which they learned. If the point of education is to shape and prepare you for adulthood and all of life's challenges, whether those are in the context of the relationships that you form, the families that you build, the communities that you participate in or the way you contribute to society—through the economy or civic engagement—those were the things we measured, not in terms of aspiration but in terms of what the subjects were actually achieving today. So this is a measurement of graduates. And we have the complete crosssection: our sample has representative groupings of public-school graduates, private-school graduates, all of the different schooling types. We asked the same questions and compared where graduates are today, and then we controlled for other factors—socioeconomic status and the rest—to determine the effect of schooling on those outcomes.

C:The data from the study done last year in the United States actually overturned some significant stereotypes, didn't it? It challenged how people perceive graduates of Christian schools versus private Catholic schools and so on.

RP: Very much. The presumption from the media is that Christian schools in the United States have been the incubator for a political movement in the past. The reality is that gradu-ates of private American Christian schools vote less, participate less in protest movements as well as politically—whether that was political contributions or working for political parties—and they were significantly less involved than graduates of public schools. And there were similar findings in Canada. What we also found in Canada is that private non-religious-school graduates were 2.3 times more likely to volunteer for a political cause than public-school graduates. When it came to all of the other privately funded school sectors, though, graduates were at very similar levels to those of the public-school sector.

C: And the results show that graduates of the Catholic government-funded systems in Ontario and Alberta are basically the same kind of duck as graduates from non-religious government-funded schools right? There's not a whole lot of daylight between them.

RP: The Catholic system is slightly different in terms of how it's structured across the country. We did get data in Quebec, but we [pulled] the Quebec data out separately because there were significant changes in the Quebec system [during] the subjects' schooling. So for the rest of Canada, when you take the government-funded Catholic system on the rest of the measures, there was no statistical difference in the schooling effect of government-funded non-religious and Catholic-school graduates.

C:The mission of Convivium, which Cardus has been publishing for a year now, is 'faith in common life.' What bearing do these results have on, how do they influence the notion of, faith in our common life? What do they contribute to that particular conversation around having both a place of faith in public life and having faith that Canadians share a common life?

RP: Well, I think, to answer the second part first, in terms of faith, believing in and participating in our common life together, I think you mentioned it earlier, graduates of non-government schools become as much a part of public life as do graduates of government-funded schools. And when we actually look at the measures and the graduates' contributions, especially when it comes to charitable giving, to volunteerism, voting and all the rest, they are participating for the common good. They are contributing to public life in a way that exceeds overall what graduates of the govern-ment school system are doing. So I think what we're seeing is that how we educate does matter and does have an impact on the very nature of what our shared life together looks like. When it comes to the first definition of faith as the role of religious expression, I would highlight some things. We tend to use the word faith as it involves those who have a theistic belief. I actually think we have to take a step back and say that faith operates in common life on the part of every individual. We are all believers. Frankly, I think it takes more faith to be an atheist, and to show the confidence that some of our atheist contributors to the public conversation have, than it does to be a believer in God. So one of the things we have to do is reclaim the fact that we are all believers of one thing or another. The challenge in a pluralistic society is that we are living together with various belief systems. When it comes to faith in common life, I think what we're measuring is not the existence of faith but the existence of different kinds of faith: theistic and non-theistic faith and how they contribute to common life. I think what the data from our survey show is that those who have a theistic faith framework are impelled gener-ally to contribute to the common good in ways that are exemplary and desirable for what I think most people would consider a prosperous society.

C: We can anticipate though that in terms of the Canadian results, and Catholic versus non-religious public schooling results being so close to each other, that it is going to add support to former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's immortal question: "What's the difference between a Catholic paper clip and a public paper clip?" If the only difference is administration, why do we need two separate school systems?

RP:But I think we've seen that already. The fact is that within the Catholic community, there are some Catholics who have chosen, in spite of the fact there is a government-funded Catholic system, to show their dissatisfaction with the system, which has caused independently funded Catholic schools to emerge in the same way as independent Protestant schools. So within the Catholic community, there already has been a fairly wide recognition and debate, and I think while this will challenge the public aspect of the conversation in terms of funding two school systems, it will also probably reinvigorate a discussion within the Catholic Church about the distinctness of their school systems and the extent to which they're achieving their objectives. My guess is that studies of this nature put a mirror in front of us so we can see where we're really at and learn from it.

C: The study measures things rather than just wishing that they were one way or the other. Where is the data going to end up? I know there was a terrific response to the U.S. study last year. Who do you see, in Canada, as the target users of the data?

RP: First of all, this is academically responsible and credible work. We worked with academics at leading universities and the results of our past studies have been published in ref-ereed academic journals and presented at leading academic conferences. I would expect the Cana-dian data to have the same reception within that community. That was one of our objectives right from the outset: to do work that could withstand academic scrutiny and would form part of the collective knowledge that we can grow with. This is an understudied field and much of the data and much of the conversation has been taking place based on stereotypes and anecdotes as opposed to a wide-ranging collection of data. So our first objective was to set a benchmark to deal with facts rather than myths. That's why the funding for this project, which exceeded a million dollars, came by and large from foundations, Catholic and Protestant, interested in education. And our appeal to them in terms of raising the money was, 'You're investing all of this money in independent schools. Don't you want to know the results in an objective manner?' This was the proposal. One of the things that we committed to them as well was that this would not only be an academic forum, but that we would translate data so that it was suitable for a popular discussion. So our report last year and the material being released this year have been written at an op-ed page level

Any interested member of the public can access the [studies] for free on our website [www.cardus.ca]. It certainly has invigorated debate in policy circles as we deal with the challenges of our education system. Obviously those who are involved in non-government schools, be they parents or others who participate in some way in those school systems, have a particular interest in this data. I would sug-gest, though, that it will also interest those looking for innovation in education. One of the things that has always struck me is that when we look at any other area of the economy, we think that innovation and competition are good. Yet when it comes to education, we somehow are less inclined to think of the role that innovation plays. I would suspect what this data will do is help the broad education policy community look at different models of education, at the results and the opportunities for us all to learn from one another. So the impact, I think, will be as much in the government schools as in the non-government schools.

C: That's a fascinating point because where there's been experimentation within the educational world, it has largely been at the level of pedagogy. As we discussed earlier, there have been all kinds of conflicts over pedagogy but not over the structure of the educational system itself. What does a dif-ferent or parallel education system look like? There have been charter schools and that kind of thing—Alberta's embraced that to an extent—but generally speaking, it's been very conservative. So this study and the data are meant to stimulate discussion around different models of schools as opposed to pedagogy?

RP: We need to keep in mind that there is no Canadian system of education. Education is a provincial responsibility, and across the country there are very diverse approaches, particularly on the issue of non-government-funded schools and the roles they play. We go from zero funding to partial funding to different formulas in different jurisdictions. So there's a lot of work that we haven't had the opportunity to do yet, quite frankly, but that can be done with this data in terms of looking at the outcomes of the different provincial models that do exist and that we can learn from as well. The utilization of this data has only begun.

C: To jump ahead a bit, this was a follow-up to the U.S study. Is there any prospect for a third leg? Is there another area that recommends itself as a natural next step, or are you going to let this settle for a while and let the conversation swirl around it before that presents itself?

RP: We haven't made any commitments nor do we have the funding currently for a next step. But there are opportunities to take the data from the Canadian and the U.S. studies, combine them and look at a North America-wide study. Ob-viously when you put the data sets together you can dig a little deeper with statistically valid samples and look at some other factors across the board. I suspect this is not a project that we're going to abandon, but the exact shape of the next part has not yet been determined.

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