Schools are failing our kids: Graduates are not learning what they need.

Our schools are failing our kids.

They are failing because they are monopolies, exempt from competition.  If schools would actually run more like businesses, things would turn around. The solution is not, despite what some think,  pouring more money into the problem. Canadians are currently spending enough on our schools. The problem is that we are not getting good value for our money.

You see, graduates coming out of today’s public schools, colleges and Universities just don’t have the skills they need to succeed in the current internationally competitive job market. In fact, according to an article in the Montreal Gazette, almost half of business leaders in a national survey responded that they think our schools are failing to turn out adequately trained young people.

If, somehow, today’s teachers could teach the right things in the right way; turn out the students companies are looking for, this country might have a chance. With the right labour force,  businesses will not only come to Canada, they will settle here. That will never happen, though, as long as those foot-dragging impediments to economic restructuring and prosperity, the unions, continue feeding at the trough of self servitude.

Or, at least, that’s the way it is according to some people.

Or should I say “was”?

Let me start again.

Last week, as I was passing through my staffroom,  I came across a pile of teacher resources that staff were being asked by our school’s librarian to review for their current relevance. One of the texts in particular caught my eye, based on my past two years of educational commentary, and I stopped for a look. The book, it seemed,  was all about the current wave of negativity surrounding education in this country. One part entitled The Assault on Schools addressed the constant barrage of criticism being faced by public education these days. Another debunked a few “edu-myths” such as Our Schools Have Failed Us…and Our Kids, and Our Graduates Just Don’t Have the Skills. Another spoke of how influential businessmen from coast to coast have been speaking out in the media on these “problems” with education and offering “no-nonsense” solutions. Finally it lamented that in all the noise, the voice of the classroom teacher was least likely to be heard. In fact, it cited a content analysis of The Globe and Mail which found that the opinions of teachers informed only 2% of the education based articles the paper had carried that year.

If this type of rhetoric sounds familiar, then you have probably opened a newspaper or a magazine yourself in the past little while. As I skimmed the book, I recalled a dozen headlines in my head from a dozen papers, both provincial and national, each of which has echoed similar sentiments. Cries of “Our Schools are Failing” and “Our Graduates are not ready” have been an almost constant chorus over the past few years, particularly here in Nova Scotia, a chorus that has everyone calling for change.

But here’s the kicker.

The book was published in 1994.

The book I refer to, of course, is Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools co-authored by Maude Barlow, then chairperson of The Council of Canadians, and Heather-Jane Robertson, then an executive member of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. The book was a bestseller at the time, and I must apologize to the authors for my clunky use of their words in my opening paragraphs. They are, of course, a very rough attempt to condense the barrage of criticism that was being endured by educators in 1994, which Class Warfare lays out so eloquently.

The astounding thing for me, of course, was that the criticisms were so familiar that the book might as well have been written yesterday.

For example, the book spoke about how an outcry in the early 90’s around Canada’s “mediocre” results in international assessments from the OECD caused MacLean’s magazine to run a special report entitled “What’s wrong at school.” In those days, Japan was the big threat to our educational domain, and their outscoring us on international assessments led to calls for longer school years for Canadian students. Japan, you see, had been  inaccurately portrayed as having 243 school days, leading alarmists to announce that unless we lengthened our own school year, our children were doomed to a very bleak future indeed.

Today, of course, little has changed. China is the new powerhouse of standardized tests, replacing the Japan of the 90s, but critics still raise alarm bells about Canada’s PISA results.  We here in Nova Scotia saw evidence of this trend when hysterical cries of “Our schools are failing!” were shouted from the rooftops when the 2013 PCAP results were released. Although we had done very well in a number of areas of Science, the subject the test was assessing, the headlines were about “mediocre” literacy and math scores. No one seemed concerned that the test makers themselves cautioned against drawing any conclusions about math and literacy from the test.

Now, I may be a bit of an optimist, but nothing I can see from the past twenty years of Canadian history would indicate that those who were sounding the education alarms of the 90s were even remotely correct. Our country has done a few pretty great things since then, things that have happened because of graduates from a system that was reportedly failing and not preparing them for the future.

This has got to give one pause when considering the validity of the exact same criticisms being used to attack public education today.

The Minister of Education is set this week to announce recommendations based on her survey of last year, a survey which echoed much of this inaccurate twenty year old sentiment.  In fact, the report to the minister on the survey results unequivocally states,  “The current [education] system is failing our students.” However, that judgment is based on many of the same erroneous reasons  schools were supposed to be failing in 1994. Schools are “failing” because we are not giving graduates the skills they need, “failing” because of test results, “failing” because of “The Union”.  And much like the authors of Class Warfare described, that opinion seems staunchly ingrained in much of the collective psyche, despite any evidence to  the contrary.

Nova Scotians have always been a tough crowd to please. Class Warfare mentions a national survey from the Canadian Educators Association from the early ’90s which found that Atlantic Canadians were more likely to fail their schools in the category of “preparing students for the workforce” than any other jurisdiction in the country. This sentiment is still clearly alive and well today. On Monday, January 26th, an editorial piece appeared in The Chronicle Herald urging the government to take action to improve schools because of results from the Province’s literacy assessment. “…poor assessment results” it read “are but the latest evidence that bold changes are needed in the province’s education system.” 

No where in the editorial was there a consideration that these results might mean anything else. There was no call to reduce child poverty. No call to reduce hunger. No call that it might be somewhere in the realm of possibility that these scores might be the result of high expectations rather than low standards.

Nope. Our schools are failing. Just like they were in 1994.

This despite the fact that the very arguments being used by critics to discredit today’s education system were used to discredit the education system that produced those self-same critics. A system that was supposedly failing them, supposedly not preparing them for the future that is now.

We all know the saying about ignoring history leading to repetition. We are all also keenly aware of the bottom line. One’s mind fairly boogles at trying to imagine how much money was spent over the last twenty years to “fix” schools in areas where they were not actually broken.

Well, my biggest hope for this Friday, when the Minister is scheduled to release her “bold educational” recommendations, is that she and I have a similar taste in books.

If not, I have one that I would gladly loan her, at least for a night or two.



Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, PISA, Public education, Quality education, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Schools are failing our kids: Graduates are not learning what they need.

  1. admin1

    Great piece Grant, and parallels what happened with _A Nation at Risk_ in the U.S. in 1983. That report contained no evidence, as far as I understand, but proclaimed loudly that U.S. schools were “failing,” which has been the centrepiece of education “reformers” ever since.

    I do wonder, though, about how we, as public education defenders, make this argument sometimes. Understandably, we want to defend our work from the mass of overly simplistic and often inaccurate commentary we see in the media. Yet if we disregard that criticism, I fear it comes across to people who have legitimate beefs with our education system as “your concerns don’t matter.” How do we protect the gains educators have fought for in our working conditions/our kids’ learning conditions while still acknowledging our own imperfections and blind spots, and striving to improve what we do at every turn? (Because just about every teacher I know wants to be a better one, no matter if – in fact, sometimes especially if – they’ve been at it for 30 years. I’m sure you could say the same.)

    I think this is the line that those of us who care about public education deeply have to walk. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.
    -Ben Sichel

    • Hi Ben, thanks for the comment. Thoughtful as always.
      I do believe public education can improve, and as you said, most educators want to get better at their craft. But unfounded criticisms like these blur the issues. If we pour all our money into educational reforms that are geared to improving PISA scores and the like, what have we gained? If we say “Our schools are failing” because of impressions formed by businessmen, then we divert resources to repairing what might not actually need fixing. There are many people who have legitimate concerns about the system and how it serves their children, and this is where our focus should be. Let’s talk about mental health, let’s talk about bias, let’s address hunger issues. And for goodness sake, let’s convince folks that there is a better way to measure the quality of a school than by looking at large scale assessment results.

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