Assessment, Opinion, Policy, Promising Practices

“Reforming Education”

Like termites in the woodwork, reform cannot be easily stopped.

My last blog ended with the cri de coeur “How To Do It?” i.e., how to bring about fundamental reform of public education. Despite a minor flood of books, articles, and speeches over the past 40 years addressed to the reform question, the system, like an ocean liner under moonlight, sailed serenely along, its 19th century design largely immune to progressive forces.

Nevertheless, there are reform termites deep within the woodwork. In Ontario, the Emmett Hall/Lloyd Dennis Report of 1968, Living and Learning, challenged many of the basic assumptions about traditional schooling. For instance, the Report stated “The fixed position of student and teacher … must give way to a more relaxed relationship which will encourage discussion, inquiry, and experimentation and will enhance the dignity of the individual.”, and a little later “… we must relate the learning experiences in our schools to the real needs of young people.”

No surprise, there was a strong right wing reaction against Hall/Dennis and all that it stood for across Canada and the United States exemplified by standardized testing at four or more points in the child’s school career.  The companion pieces of government testing – more explicit government control of curriculum and textbooks, system-wide codes of conduct and standard report cards; such reactions cast a pall over teacher professional independence and parental pleasure with the schools. In the process, many school boards sunk to the level of handmaidens of the central authority. In New Brunswick they disappeared altogether.

But the reform train had left the station and could not be stopped. Typically, a school system under pressure to reform itself would gain approval for an experimental school or set of schools where innovation would be the order of the day, – without losing public funding. A few examples: The Calgary Girls School where the teachers are exempted from compulsory membership in the Alberta Teachers Association and where they are evaluated for merit pay. The Seven Oaks Met School in Winnipeg features “advisors” rather than teachers.  It may not sound like much but can have a huge impact on teacher-student relations in a society ready for some democracy in the schoolhouse. In the Greystone School near Edmonton, standardized test results are treated as a necessary evil with little relationship to the higher values of the school. Finland, leading the world in international student achievement tests, has abandoned standardized testing at home!

These random recollections encourage me to believe that school reform is seriously underway and, like termites in the woodwork, cannot be easily stopped.


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.

Read More