Author: Mike Zlotnik
The Vancouver Sun of April 17 (A17) showcases three different perspectives on education, opening a debate on the B.C. election of May 12.
Harvey Enchin argues education is a Liberal plus, what he called a "standout success." Irene Lanzinger shows how the government has broken its promises and worse is to come. Andrew Cohen claims, "We have created a system that is failing our children." He comments on the trouble with today's students: their erratic work ethic, their shallow research, their lack of intellectual depth, their sense of entitlement. He pinpoints the problem as elementary schools where children aren't allowed to fail anymore because that might hurt their feelings. And he notes that, "Report cards come home with inflated grades and commentaries so impersonal and insipid that it's undoubtedly generated by computer."
The Charter for Public Education provides a lens through which to examine these opinions. The Charter opens with these two sentences. "Public education is a sacred trust. As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build." Those two sentences, amplified by the rest of the Charter, sketch out a philosophy of education evolving historically over many generations and centuries. From Enlightenment times to the present, many people, including John Dewey and Paulo Freire contributed insights to the Charter lens for education.
This progressive movement advocated that students play an active role in their own learning within a school system committed to democracy and social justice. We slowly made gains. Then, over the last third of a century, a reactionary movement mounted a critique of declining standards, too little competition, lazy teachers, lax discipline, greedy teachers' unions and future economic collapse as a result of progressive pedagogy. Their solutions were back to the basics (cut out art, music and critical human studies), market-based choice, privatization, centralized testing and making students, parents and teachers accountable to government for results. As they attacked public schools, many of us backed off our criticisms for fear we would give them ammunition for their agenda. However, their reactionary agenda is now directing public education. We must confront it!
On his main point, Cohen is right: the current SYSTEM is failing our children. However, he misconstrues why it is failing. It restricts their curriculum to readily measured, centrally controlled outcomes. It suppresses their participation actively in their own education. It is part of a social system that is unequal, unfair and that wastes the potential of many students. Irene Lanzinger observed that British Columbia has the worst child poverty rate in the country. Connections between family wealth and education and children's success in school are among the most solid facts of educational research. While it is fashionable in some circles to dismiss the connections between socio-economic class status and educational outcomes as excuses for poor teaching, we hope you, our members, will join a dialogue on what we can do about poverty and social class. What policies on poverty and social class will advance the Charter pedagogical principles?
Given the systemic flaws in current public schooling, Harvey Enchin's claim that education is a standout success is nonsense. For example, a grade one class in a middle class community in the lower mainland has 19 students, good news on the class size front. However, their parents are paying for private tutoring for ten of them! This is one illustration of how the focus on testing is corrupting public education. Social class competition is fierce as early as grade one.
Andrew Cohen complains about inflated grades without considering the history and purposes of grading. To a substantial degree, public education once provided opportunities for the children of poor and working class parents to acquire social capital to move up the socio-economic ladder. However, the hope that public schools could actually lift children from poor families out of poverty was only partly successful. Schooling became part of the system of social class selection and sorting. Grades and marks provided a phoney sense of legitimation to schooling that largely reproduced existing social classes. The grading system corrupted schooling and changed its focus from learning to gaining a competitive advantage for participation in the economic system students would enter as they grew up. Curriculum, marks and grading served that function in the system of industrial schooling that lasted into the 1970s. Dropouts were part of the selection process. People believed those who failed at school were personally responsible for their own failings. Too stupid or lazy to benefit from schooling beyond elementary school, they deserved nothing better than the bottom rungs of the economic system.
Then came computers, information and communication technologies, the Internet and intensified globalization. The information society made dropouts and underachievers into an economic problem rather than a superficially legitimate system for selecting the under classes. Now, we have a system of curriculum, testing, marks and grades built for sorting and selecting students for the socio-economic class system, along with the demand that schools provide ALL students with the social capital for the new economy.
When I was a high school basketball coach, I learned not to give kids mixed messages. If you want them to play a high tempo, pressing, run and gun game, do not criticize them for the kinds of mistakes that come from the style. Do not make them afraid but encourage them to take the initiative and control the tempo. However, the architects of the present system of schooling have put both teachers and students in a double bind with contradictory messages. Governments impose a competitive grading system designed to separate the winners from the losers and then complain there are losers! The Fraser Institute takes government's Foundation Skills Assessments to rank schools on their performances in this competitive game, claiming that differential results largely caused by the socio-economic class system indicate the quality of schooling and teaching.
While Andrew Cohen is right that there is grade inflation, he is missing the contradictory demands now placed on public schools, namely that they ensure that every child succeed (so the economy can grow and become more productive) and that they, at the same time, sort and select children for their different roles in the current socio-economic order.
Andrew Cohen is troubled by the insistence that everyone succeed while Harvey Enchin is delighted that the Foundation Skills Assessment, which he finds objective and credible, despite the assessment of professional educators to the contrary, shows all is well in our schools except for the "industrial trade union that represents teachers in British Columbia."
Irene Lanzinger objects to the inadequate funding, which we will discuss in a subsequent blog.
All is not well. The crucial questions are. What is right about our system. What is wrong and needs change? What are we going to do?
Note: This blog was originally posted April 28, 2009 but was inadvertently deleted and then re-entered October 2, 2009.
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.