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Students arrive at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Paul W. Bennett is the director of Schoolhouse Institute. This piece is adapted from his book The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools.

Over the past six months, school systems, like most other public and social institutions, have been humbled by a global shock, the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the March, 2020, school shutdown, everyone from school leaders to students, parents, and teachers has been reminded that, despite the best-laid plans, the future has the capacity to surprise us.

Preparing for that future now entails absorbing those lessons, rethinking past assumptions, and considering what once seemed like improbable prescriptions. One realization is gradually becoming crystal clear: The centralized and over-bureaucratic school system proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive pandemic disruption.

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Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as automatically closing all schools and delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet.

Emergency distance learning in the Toronto District School Board and elsewhere was mostly an educational disaster. When it was over, at least one-quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education. Now sizeable numbers of students and parents are opting out of in-person schools and choosing online learning or gravitating to alternative school options, including home education “learning pods.”

The modern bureaucratic education system has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep. Since its rise and expansion over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with, and responsive to, students, families, teachers, and communities.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. Those voicing concerns about early reading, mathematics scores or school closings find the system resistant to change and regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings, particularly when trying to access the points of decision-making.

The modern school system has, for all intents and purposes, come more and more to resemble and function much like what German sociologist Max Weber called the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a world driven by technological efficiency, rational calculation and control.

During the pandemic disruption, the fragility of that impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. We came to recognize how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school-district directives. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Rebuilding the disrupted and damaged systems will involve deconstructing and dismantling centralized, bureaucratic K-12 education. Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

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Decentralizing governance with school-based management would be a good first step, but, by itself, will not be the magical cure. Humanizing education will involve turning to smaller schools operating on a scale closer to students and teachers. Teaching-centred classrooms recognize the vital importance of supporting effective teaching. Engaging parents in meaningful ways will involve embracing family-centric schools, more essential than ever in COVID-19 times.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Today’s pandemic education crisis has alerted us to the need for systemic change. Saving the system may require reinventing it from the schools up. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for learning and the quality of public education. Given the signs of disaggregation, it’s time to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

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