I attended the On The Coast forum on public education yesterday afternoon at Vancouver Tech High School. It was a thought provoking discussion.
The questions were:
- Is B.C.’s public education system broken?
- How can we strengthen the current system?
- Where do we go from here?
I was struck by the absence of two key stakeholder groups from the panel. The panelists included Ann Whiteaker, past president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils; Jerry Li, Grade 11 student from Surrey; Chris Kennedy, superintendent, West Vancouver School District; and Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute. There were no teachers on the panel, and no representatives from the education research community.
At the end of the two hour session there were still long lines at both microphones, stakeholders in the education system wanting to contribute to the conversation. Peter Grimmett had a brief opportunity to offer remarks at the end of the session, but the content of his comments was pretty much lost in the short time he had as the program was wrapping up.
A few key ideas have come to me this morning as I pondered my experience at the forum and how to improve discussion about education. First, there is clearly a need for more conversations about education in this province. These conversations must include those most directly affected by educational legislation and policy: teachers and current students.
I was impressed by the students who spoke at the forum, and also noted the kinds of issues uppermost in their minds. One student expressed concern about testing and university entrance. Chris Kennedy countered that the education system should not function as a social filter for university education. It appears to me that students also need opportunities to discuss and examine the purpose of their education, and how it can make a meaningful contribution to their future endeavours.
Teachers also need a space to articulate their concerns and tell their stories. Unfortunately, teachers’ discourse in the media tends to be reduced to a focus on funding. But, as Dr. Grimmett pointed out, teachers also talk about pedagogy, and I think the stories of teachers’ work lives need to be told, rather than focusing on funding. As one teacher said to me after the forum, “It is all about funding.” I disagree. The education system, and everyone who has a stake in it, is under immense pressure to change. The question is, change into what? Putting more money into an archaic system is not going to make it work better, in fact, it might make it worse. What is needed is deliberate conversations about the issues and the future and what kind of education system we want to fund with our public monies. Once we have clarity of purpose, we can argue for funding to support the implementation of that system.
I was really surprised by Peter Cowley’s comments from the Fraser Institute. It was disheartening to hear his remarks and realize this was the kind of thinking behind the Fraser Institute’s push for testing and ranking schools. Once again, an archaic mindset from industrial era educational theory, using ‘one size fits all’ methodologies while admitting the composition of students in any given classroom, in any given school, in any given district are not the same, nor equal. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with using some form of assessment or evaluation to track activity and ascertain whether policy initiatives or administrative practices are accomplishing the outcomes they were designed for. There is something profoundly wrong with using testing to disenfranchise our most vulnerable citizens, not because they are failing the system, but because the system is failing them.
Educational research such as that employed by the Fraser Institute has long suffered from ‘sciency’ methodologies borrowed from the worst positivistic approaches in the natural sciences. Educational institutions, and all the stakeholders attending (students, parents, teachers, administrators, researchers, politicians, employers, communities, etc.) are not inert, static topographies that can simply be represented by pre-determined categories. They are living, breathing entities, comprised of the people, their purposes, and the resources they have at hand. Educational research has come a long way in understanding how to study evolving human interactivity. Surely we can do better than an outdated report card based on erroneous or even fictitious criteria.
Time for me to get back to work.