When it comes to the most recent attack on public education in this country, I have to admit, I am not really sure where to begin.
The abject idiocy of Ontario’s Tory government approach to education reform has left me beyond baffled. The election of Doug Ford in the first place was a bit of a stunner, for sure, but that, at least, could perhaps be attributed to the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne coming to the end of its shelf life. If folks from Ontario were looking for something different in a Premier this time around, they definitely found it.
However, as I have been watching the events in Ontario unfold, and have heard Ontario education Minister Lisa Thompson speak with awe inspiring conviction about how increasing class size is actually good for students, and how merit based hiring of teachers works (it doesn’t, by the way) I have found myself more and more at a loss.
It is not unprecedented in today’s educational reality for governments to fabricate problems in order to justify their own brand of solutions. We certainly saw that recently here in Nova Scotia when the Liberal government used an imaginary conflict of interest to justify legislating principals out of the NSTU, presumably with an eye to weakening the union. In Ontario, however, the rhetoric has reached Trumpian proportions. Between increasing the amount of standardized testing for kids to implementing a province wide, annual, mandatory math test for teachers (yes, teachers), the Ford government’s educational priorities seem, to put it rather bluntly, out of touch with any serious reality.
Now, if this trend were isolated to Ontario, it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a symptom of “Fordnationism”. However, right across our country, public education is increasingly the target of governmental reforms that seem absolutely void of any substantive evidence that they are good for kids. In Alberta, The United Conservative Party has started chirping about increasing the number of Charter Schools in that province, which, by their very existence, reduce the amount of money available to public institutions. The government in Manitoba has recently hired Dr. Avis Glaze, who helped fabricate the aforementioned imaginary conflict of interest in Nova Scotia, to review their education system. (I am predicting calls for increased standardized testing, more accountability measures for teachers, and the abolition of elected school boards will result.) Across the Nation, governments of various political stripes are launching concentrated, devastating attacks against the public education system.
The maddening thing about all this is that so many of these reforms are being recommended, and adopted with an almost religious fervor, without any declaration, or even consideration, of how they will achieve any practical ends. Government documents are littered with deficit rhetoric like “Our schools are failing!” and “Our children can’t wait!”, even though there is no clear evidence that schools are indeed failing, or any indication what, precisely, the children are waiting for. The reformists will tell you that we need improved test scores, or, in Ford’s case, better math results, but I challenge anyone to show me how requiring a high school English teacher to write a math test will have any real impact on student achievement, in Math or otherwise.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is the way in which may of these reforms are, by there very nature, so slanted towards individualist thinking, as opposed to a more collectivist world view. Standardized tests have been shown time and again to disadvantage marginalized students. Larger class sizes do the same. Removal of elected school board positions reduces the capacity of communities to lobby for resources. Charter schools provide a disproportionate advantage to wealthier families. The list goes on and on.
The reforms being proposed in Ontario, and indeed all across Canada, seem to be not so much about education as they are about class. If one traces these ideas back to their neo-liberal roots, that should not come as a surprise. Although there are those who are quick to label every initiative they disagree with as “neo-liberal”, the ideology is quite clear on a few key ideas. The “Drag-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” world view is a cornerstone to the movement, as is the “anyone who fails is simply not working hard enough” mantra. That many of these same sentiments are now finding their way into our discourse around public education should give us at least some small pause.
Fordnation is poised to impose a series of educational reforms upon Ontario that will change the very face of public education, much as the Liberal reforms have done here in Nova Scotia. And, like here, the reforms are being backed by little more than populist rhetoric, with no real consideration of the potential long term damage they may have on the system. As bombast and union busting become the currency in which governments barter about public education, it is generations of Canadian kids who are poised to suffer.
I was listening to the radio the other day, and the announcers were relating an anecdote about a Canadian woman who was on a trans-Atlantic cruise. She was speaking with an American nurse when the topic of politics came up. When it was revealed that the nurse had voted for Donald Trump, the Canadian passenger asked why. The nurse explained, apparently with a straight face, that it was because Hillary Clinton was part of an uber-rich organization that exploited immigrant children. The group apparently kept the children in a secret lab and frightened them in order to extract a hormone produced by their bodies when under stress. The group then took the hormone for its magical health benefits.
The nurse explained that she had voted for Trump because she believed Hillary Clinton, essentially, ate babies.
This is obviously not a particularly reliable source, but I use it here intentionally, with a nod to Rick Mercer and his one time CBC show “Talking to Americans”. Much fun has been poked at our Yankee cousins over the past few years about their seeming willingness to accept even the most outlandish claims as fact. Indeed, they seem to have elected a President using a very similar premise. But when considering this alarming (and often times, frightening) penchant of our stateside neighbours to openly accept a baby eating Hillary Clinton as a truism, one can not help but wonder where such gullibility originates.
To find that answer, I truly believe we need look no further than twenty-five odd years of American public education reform; reform which has decimated their system and which Canada now seems hell bent on emulating.
I believe a revival of Mercer’s show may be on the horizon. It will be called “Talking like Americans”. Coming soon to a schoolyard near you.