Curriculum, School Community

Just What the Doctor Ordered

A review of Keeping the Public in Public Education by Rick Salutin, Linda Leith Publishing, 2012. ISBN 0987831720

This series of short essays should be required reading for educators and education advocates everywhere. In saying this, I have to confess a certain bias – and one caused not only by my strong belief in public education. Rick Salutin is a personal friend. He’s also a well-respected journalist and social critic whose ideas strike a chord with thoughtful readers of various opinions.

Teachers will find this little book (it’s just 64 pages) heartening, administrators will feel their problems are recognized, and those of us who believe that public education is one of Canada’s greatest gifts to its citizenry will now have new tools to back up our claims.

At a time when many of our public institutions are being dismissed as unnecessary, inefficient, or the product of outdated lefty beliefs, Salutin comes out swinging in favour of public education and against the trends toward privatization, corporatization, the free market, and deregulation that he sees threatening it. In this series of articles (originally published in the Toronto Star in 2011), he looks at testing and accountability, school choice, equity, teaching, and what defines the “public” in public education. He argues that society’s current love-in with the free market is based more on faith than on evidence, and he urges us to protect public education from the ever-encroaching “religion” of privatization.

In the opening chapter Salutin examines the intangible qualities that go into making a great teacher. It’s all about the magic that happens “after the door closes.” What do we remember about the great teachers from our childhood? “Was it some info they passed on, or was it something they ignited in you? Probably the latter…ignition is the ticket…And since it’s a relationship, almost anything can and does work.”

Education reformers, he says, speak out of both sides of their mouths. “They say ‘there is no one best way.’ Then they list dozens, or more, of specifics…” In making the case for teacher autonomy, he points out that Finnish teachers have a sense of professional control and responsibility, and Finnish students consistently come out on top in international comparisons.

In the belief system of the free market reformers, school choice looms large. Salutin argues that, while choice might be good for some students, specialty and alternative schools threaten to “drain the life out of the public system.” He worries that middle or upper class families, looking for a form of private schooling within the public system, are “cannibalizing and undermining the mainstream schools.” Alternative, specialty, and even French Immersion schools break down cohesion, take the pressure off the system to improve for all kids, and fragment rather than integrate. Salutin uses the integration of students with special needs to support his arguments against fragmentation. He says we have come to assume that students with special needs should be educated together with all other students, and he questions what may be a double standard for specialty schools.

In the section on testing, Salutin examines the current fixation on accountability. He warns against the danger that the measurable outcomes we have placed on our public systems – shorter waiting lists, better scores, higher rankings – end up defining what we do.

  • In a way, once the tests exist, it’s hard not to fix on them. They’re so concrete; they tend to take over from other forms of assessment. Education officials are very good at verbalizing lofty “show goals” like teaching civics or creativity; it helps give all the testing a more human face. But they tend to put their fervor into hailing the latest scores.

Salutin’s conclusions focus on equity and on the “new public” – a public vastly changed since the beginnings of Canadian public education. In examining the needs of that new public, he describes SchoolPlus – the Saskatchewan policy to support community schools – each one developed to serve its own unique community – where “tectonic shifts” are changing the way schools do business. He also looks at Pathways to Education, a program started in Toronto’s Regent Park and slowly moving to communities across the country, because it’s an example of how kids are served by supports outside the system.

Of the many important messages in this book, none is more important than its call for pride in the accomplishment that is Canada’s public education system.

  • Canadians have tended to define ourselves as a society in terms of public health care… But public education is an accomplishment on a different level. Health care is biological; it’s about survival on a physical level, and it’s similar for people everywhere. Education is more specific and more social. It’s how we define the way we are, not simply that we are.

Salutin wants to make sure we recognize both the reasons to be proud and the imperative to maintain a system we can be proud of. 

Meet the Expert(s)

Annie Kidder

Annie Kidder is Executive Director of People for Education, an Ontario-based organization founded in 1996 to support public education in Ontario’s English, Catholic, and French schools. www.peopleforeducation.com

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