By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mial, March 8, 2012
Our schools are run like a bunch of factories from the early industrial age. They have rigid work rules, negotiated for the benefit of management and labour (but not the parents or the kids). Seniority reigns, everyone has job security for life, and a distant, top-heavy bureaucracy decrees exactly what gets taught and how. Students of wildly varying talents proceed in lockstep down the assembly line until the system spits them out.
Teachers, meantime, scramble to find textbooks for the kids as our bloated ministries of education crank out mountains of bumf that dictate everything from curriculum standards, learning objectives and approved teaching materials to anti-bullying policies, diversity initiatives and the very latest schemes to raise test scores.
Any other enterprise this dysfunctional would have been mothballed long ago. “It is in almost every respect a system built for another age,” writes education historian John Fleming (whose views were cited in The Province newspaper). The union, the government and the school trustees, in his view, are all anti-visionary, anti-technological and completely committed to the status quo. His observations hold true for almost every education system on the continent.
It’s not as if education has been starved of money. Although most provincial governments are strapped for cash, education budgets have jumped even as school enrolments have fallen. B.C. now spends $8,491 per child, an increase of $2,229 per student since 2001. In Ontario during the same period, per pupil funding soared by 56 per cent, to $11,207. The province used a great deal of this extra money to expand the bureaucracy. It added reams of “diagnosticians” and “experts” to boost test scores in low-performing schools, and poured millions into professional development. Sadly, the results were negligible.
It turns out that trying to impose improvement from the top down doesn’t work. Nonetheless, sizable amounts of money continue to be spent on this fruitless effort, while the ministry continues to crank out fresh edicts that the schools do their best to ignore.
What would a 21st-century education system look like? The thinker Walter Russell Mead has some good ideas. Imagine a world where groups of like-minded teachers are empowered to get together and open neighbourhood schools and run them as they see fit. Parents could choose any school they want. Teachers and principals would determine their own curriculum, teaching materials and policies. They, not the school board or the government, would decide how big the classes would be and whether they should offer Grade 11 history, gym, music or clown lessons. Teachers would be treated as entrepreneurs and professionals instead of factory workers. Principals would be able to recruit the teachers they want. They could use the powerful new tools of distance and computer education as they see fit.
Every so often, the students would write standard tests in core subjects, and the results would be public. Low-income students or those with special needs would get extra money for more help. The government would make sure the teachers are certified and the building isn’t falling down. The big, bloated, centralized bureaucracy would all but disappear. The money saved might pay for those music lessons – or higher salaries for teachers.
The schools systems are not only dysfunctional, they are beyond the public's capacity to change. They are arrogant, smug, insular, and in a word profoundly neurotic. They do not trust even the doctoral candidates who appear at their door asking to conduct legitimate research. They do not release the kind of information that any public enterprise, in any other field, simply must release. And no matter how hard the public may try to probe their "culture" they are stonewalled at every turn.
And these comments apply, from my own experience, to Canadian schools, while those above are directed at schools across the continent.
We have, in short, created a monster. We are failing all students who enter these hallowed halls daily and we are especially failing the male cohort of those who attend. And the kind of evidence that we cannot get points to increasing costs for other social programs because of the failure of our schools.
I would be bored to death in many current schools today.
When I taught, from 1963-84, in Ontario private and public high schools, I was offered encouragement to experiment, to offer curricular modifications, to design new curricular offerings and to make the place as exciting as possible. There was certainly a bureaucracy, a hierarchy of political operatives, from the principals to the superintendents to the directors. And they had their job to do, but, for the most part, the operating principle at the top seemed to be, for the principals, "Do not bring any problems to our desk, keep them contained in your baileywick."
Those ambitious men and women who aspired to be executives had to work with the parents, the boards, the provincial government which had its own bureaucrats some of whom actually visited classrooms to ascertain if teachers were doing what they were paid to be doing. This was especially true for new teachers whose certificates were about to become "permanent" and that meant something back then.
We need to open our schools to the army of reporters whose specialty is digging beyond the numbers of dollars and numbers of scores on standardized tests, and numbers of suspensions and expulsions into the kind of experience the kids are getting, the kind of culture these monsters of silence, arrogance and secrecy have developed and open the thing up for public scrutiny. And we need to do it soon!
Fear is not, and never has been, a constituent of learning, in the broadest sense. And bureaucratic fear, the fear of public scrutiny and attack, is at the core of the neurosis that dominates our schools. And the back of that fear has to be broken, if we are to open the system to public discourse, debate and detailed information.