Assessment, Leadership, Opinion, Policy, Promising Practices, School Community

Shaking the Education Tree

The time is now for a paradigm shift from uniformity, standardization, centralization and bureaucratization to one that heralds individualism, singularity and selfhood.

A previous blog written on October 5 was on the eve of the Ontario election that returned the Dalton McGuinty Liberals, one seat shy of a majority. The province’s second most expensive public service, education, was never really debated during the entire campaign. There was an occasional glimpse of McGuinty slapping himself on the back that Ontario had the best of all school systems. His opponents’ platforms offered only unchallenged verities. Too bad!

There is much that might have been said. It is 16 years since there was a thorough discussion of public education in the most populous province of the country.  I refer to the five-volume report For the Love of Learning, 1995, Gerald Caplan and Monique Begin, which fulsomely addressed the principles and practices of Ontario schools. Two such progressive-minded persons should have paid more respect to the liberating idealism of its predecessor report, Living and Learning, 1968, Hall/Dennis.  I, for one, hoped that the 1995 report would propose ways to increase the professional autonomy of teachers, open doors for students seeking more freedom to make choices, break down the subject rigidities of the curriculum, engage the community in the teaching-learning process, empower parents as auxiliaries rather than as bemused bystanders, advance the idea of children actually enjoying school – as the title of the report claimed.

But 1995 was not a time for visionaries. It was post-recession, belt tightening time. Time also to be worried about international test results (1991), which revealed Canadian 13-year-olds in ninth place in science and mathematics in a set of fifteen industrialized countries. Thus the Caplan/Begin Report (unintentionally) slammed the door on liberal thinking in the public schools and implicitly authorized the test-and-remediate style of education. The apparent need for more rigour and discipline in the classroom was such an uncomplicated concept that the politicians could grasp it with enthusiasm. Thus we are burdened with the Ontario Education Act, 1,200 pages long in fine print. http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90e02_e.htm

All across North America public school teachers struggle to get their scores up based on standardized tests in reading, writing, science, mathematics, etc. Even a slight improvement in the scores is celebrated at the board offices, in the local newspapers and within the central bureaucracies even though a quarter to a third of pupils remain stubbornly below the mediocre standard set for their jurisdiction. In this numbers game, mediocrity has become the icon on the flag flying over most schools. This gloomy assessment does not do justice to all the points of light in some public schools in different parts of the country. But the bright spots , I believe, are the exception rather than the norm.

In the outcome, private schools have blossomed. According to my best estimate there are six million pupils in Canadian publicly- supported schools, a number that is falling. Meanwhile rising private school enrolment in Ontario approaches 130,000. Multiply that number by four for a rough estimate of private school enrolment in Canada as a whole, i.e. about half a million. (Stats Canada seems not to keep private school enrolment figures).

It is time for a change. What is needed is a paradigm shift in keeping with the groundbreaking social/economic/psychological drama playing out since 1995. Central to this seismic rumbling is, of course, the computer and the digital revolution. This technology has put in jeopardy the negative and out-dated hallmarks of public education – uniformity, standardization, centralization and bureaucratization. The new paradigm, on the other hand, heralds individualism, singularity and selfhood. Like death and taxes, this revolution cannot be stopped even though most schools in their structure and governance pretend not to be affected by it. Private schooling burgeons, among other reasons, either to defy the revolution or embrace it. Public schooling, at the very least, needs a major investigation into this historic, cataclysmic process now under way.

Next time, I’ll lift my head above the parapets and offer some terms of reference.

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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