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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Our school systems are so last century Add to ...

Pity the poor parents in British Columbia. For the past three days, their children’s teachers have been off the job and, although they’re expected back Thursday, the end of labour strife is not in sight. The teachers’ union is demanding a 15-per-cent raise. The government has offered zero. The union is run by left-wing militants who sound like they’ve come straight from a Marxist-Leninist workers’ rally.

Relations between the government and the teachers union in B.C. have been toxic for as long as anyone can remember. The teachers, too, are trapped in this mess, trying to do more and more with what seems like less and less. As John Watson, one young teacher, said in a letter to The Vancouver Sun, “We cannot face the 21st century with a 19th-century education model and 20th-century technology.”

Mr. Watson nailed it. 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 Thomas 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.

That’s just a fantasy, of course – for now. But the old education model, like so much else from the 20th century, is finished. Someone, some time soon, will begin to reinvent it.

Editor's Note: Thomas Fleming, an educational historian and emeritus professor of the University of Victoria, has said that the B.C. education system "is in almost every respect a system built for another age." A previous version of this article had an incorrect first name. This version has been corrected.

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