Curriculum, Leadership, Opinion, School Community


Why the structure of public education is at odds with the needs of its clients

Last spring I wrote a series of blogs based on the proposition that our publicly supported schools should not only be in the community, but of the community. By that I meant that adolescent students approaching adulthood and the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy need to be significantly engaged in the ordinary affairs and activities of the community. I urged that 20% of the regular school time of students aged 16 to 18 should be spent in work/learning situations outside the school. Adequate staff resources would have to be provided to make it work satisfactorily both for students and community persons and organizations. An earlier blog of mine offered some practical working details.

A fellow blogger, Stephen Hurley, wrote recently about capacity building as the essential ingredient in implementing any improvement in education. In his list of “Schools are —“ statements he said this: “Schools are built on the assumption that students can effectively learn about the world by being removed from it for most of their formative years.” That statement goes to the heart of what I believe to be the most critical challenge in transforming education.

In that regard, the line that I wish to pursue for a few weeks is this: the structure of public education in North America is at odds with the needs of its clients, i.e. students and their parents. Put differently, the clients need a structure that will not only provide the skills and techniques for success in the digital age but also the attitudes and personal sensitivities for constructive citizenship in a democracy. In that respect, the typical power structure in public education is counter-productive. It is hierarchical, i.e. Minister of Education at the top, central administrators next, followed by school boards as hand maidens of the Minister, with principals and teachers serving the school board. At the bottom are students and parents dancing to the tune of the school authorities.

Of course, there must be a line of accountability satisfactory to the politicians who manage the tax revenue needed to pay for the system. What is lacking is sufficient operational flexibility at the local level to ensure that the clients (students and parents) are actively in touch with the realities of their own communities while their children are growing up. That for me would be a real environment for learning. More to come!


Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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