Public Values

Education IS a public matter

Complaints about schools reveal privatization's real agenda.

Education IS a public matterby Heather-jane Robertson

The message that 'schools are failing' is the Right's essential strategic frame for trying to persuade citizens to abandon public education and divert funding to private schools instead. Everything else is mere tactics. Many parents believe fervently that only with 'the right education' will their children hope to succeed in an increasingly Darwinian world.

These anxieties make it easier for the Right to seize the public opinion advantage that is so fundamental to shaking confidence in education. When there is little agreement (and even less debate) over what we want schools to accomplish, it is remarkably easy to cast doubt on their success, especially among stressed and doubtful parents.

When mainstream media discuss schools, we all receive many explicit or implicit messages about what schools are for, whose values they promote, and how they are faring as public institutions. Some of what we hear comes from strongly ideological perspectives, even though the 'expert-du-jour' may claim that the last thing education needs is to be politicized.

Education's importance to the kind of critical thinking a complex society requires is probably self-evident, at least to those reading this article. But it is an error to assume that this view is widely shared across the population.

A 2003 Leger survey found that while 40 percent of respondents with a post-secondary education identified imparting 'a love of learning' or fostering 'a critical and alert spirit' as the most important role of schools, just 15 percent of those with only a high school education agreed.

For less educated adults, teaching students to be respectful of others — and respectful of 'the work ethic' — mattered far more. An education that leads students to challenge authority rather than to accept authoritarian excesses may please better-educated parents, but it is likely to dismay parents who expect schools to help their children adapt to rather than change the world. It is difficult to bridge gaps as fundamental as these and keep even most people reasonably satisfied with the conduct of schools.

This disconnect is just one of many that have been craftily exploited by those with an interest in undermining public education. As long as education's goals can be kept contradictory while they are expanded indefinitely (reduce childhood obesity, convince those PhD's kids to take up trades, bring Aboriginal students' achievement up to the level of other students', end racism, keep kids safe on the Internet, etc, etc) then public education's failure can pretty well be guaranteed.

Nor does it help schools to perform remarkably well, even under difficult circumstances. One of the most resilient artifacts of public opinion research in education is that the closer people are to schools (as recent students or current parents) the more positive their opinion of their quality.

However, these 'satisfied customers' don't generalize. They tend to think that their positive experiences were anomalous — just good luck. These people tend to think that their school was superior to other schools in their community, quite superior to others in the province and vastly superior to the average school across the country.

The good news is that despite declining public confidence in most institutions, by and large Canadians are just as satisfied with schools as they have been at any point over the last four decades. The bad news is that the experience of being close to schools is becoming less common as the population ages and moves on to priorities deemed to be more immediate, such as the quality of health care.

Yet education retains a sort of fuzzy familiarity that makes it vulnerable to re-interpretation. Although it is part of the life experience of every adult, there is a distinct lack of consensus — even lack of debate — over education's purposes, achievements, failures and relationship to the social and economic realities that shape schools.

Ironically, despite its status as the single creation of governments that touches every one of us, few citizens take time to think about education as a 'system' that is shaped by political choices — except in times of conflict. Nor are there outstanding, household name public intellectuals who champion a national vision for what our schools might become, and how we might all contribute to their success.

This analytical void is widened by several factors, including the often incomprehensible eduspeak adopted by educators and their bureaucracies, the lack of a transparent Federal role in K-12 education and the absence of credible, meaningful measures of progress — assuming that some consensus could be reached about what educational progress means.

At the beginning of the 1990's, the Right's criticism was remarkably blunt. Ronald Reagan's task force on education claimed that the poor quality of American education was equivalent to the damage inflicted by an invading army, a framing mantra that was adopted enthusiastically by the Canadian political Right. Their oft-repeated arguments, such as the claim that Japanese 4-year-olds enjoyed Algebra while Canadian schools graduated illiterates, were not difficult to rebut. But well-articulated defenses were scarce.

Media broadsides oft proposed more corporate involvement in schools as an all-purpose panacea. At the top of the list of ways in which education was to be reformed was getting schools to act more like businesses. During the decade following this rather crude attempt to undermine schools, 'framers' such as the Fraser Institute began to capitalize somewhat more subtly on public education's inherent vulnerabilities.

After field-testing a few themes, critics settled on the following list, confident that most of those who heard these statements frequently enough would ignore their lack of substance and / or damaging consequences:

  • Choice: Just as consumers can choose among different refrigerators, parents ought to be able to choose the school (if any) their child attends. Once adopted, the mantra of 'choice' is easily applied to proposals to provide public funding to private schools.

  • Competition: The premise is that competition motivates improvement, and that without it, indolent teachers in 'government-run' schools will do the bare minimum. Thus the move to rank schools based on ludicrously unreliable and inappropriate data — supposedly as a spur to competition. The US has taken rankings one step further, punishing low-performing schools (often in high-needs areas) by decreasing their budgets and turning the money over to high-performing schools in affluent areas.

  • Private vs Public: Schools that select their students (either directly, through entrance exams, or indirectly, through tuition fees or religious affiliation) are assumed to be superior to public schools. Critics attack public schools as a-religious, or even anti-religious, and as catering to mindless multiculturalism.

  • Free-market Teachers: Those opposed to teachers' unions often portray teachers (especially those active in their unions) as change-averse and self-interested. They present an image of 'good' teachers as paragons of selfless service who are rejected by their more militant colleagues. To them talk, teacher education is a waste of time and money, since good teaching is just a function of commitment, spurred on by competition and bonus pay.

  • Accountability: A particularly slippery word, which makes it an ideal framing tool. The notion of "accountability" can be applied to students who behave badly or perform poorly; to teachers who are deemed 'unresponsive' to parental demands; and to justify the ridiculous expenditure of time and other resources on testing and retesting rather than teaching. It can justify the elimination of school boards or increase parent responsibility for fundraising.

See my new book Great Expectations on the politics of education in Canada for convincing data to refute each one of these outrageous claims. You'll find clear examples of how schools' (and politicians', and educrats') attempts to accommodate rather than challenge these frames have weakened education's ability to meet the real problems it faces.

But unless advocates of public education succeed in presenting our own frames, all the data in the world will join the info-litter that surrounds us. Towards this goal of reframing, let me suggest the following as the key messages to employ when talking about schools:

Public education is our most remarkable and enduring national achievement.

Creating a public education system that aspires to serve every student is just as complex – and just as important – as creating a universal public healthcare system. While no system is perfect, comparing Canada's education outcomes with those of other developed countries confirms our success on nearly every measure. For example, the 'performance gap' between low- and high-income students is smaller in Canada than in any other country that measures the effects of wealth on achievement. This is no small accomplishment.

Everyone — not just students and their parents — benefits from a great education system.

Whether the focus is citizen participation, worker productivity, the health of the economy or our ability to accommodate difference, the impact of education touches every area of public policy and private life. The Right frames education as a commodity owned by the individual, as a private rather than a public good. We should be emphasizing that the quality of education that 'other peoples' kids' receive has a direct and profound bearing on everyone's quality of life.

Schools are doing remarkably well under the circumstances.

Considering that they are buffeted by political winds, forced to implement policy changes that make no sense to people who understand how schools work, and by wild exaggerations of 'what's wrong with schools,' our schools have shown a remarkable capacity to adjust, change and continue to do well. We have asked schools to fix problems the rest of society finds 'too difficult' — from practising religious accommodation to providing high-quality childcare. We must insist that these issues not be downloaded to unsupported schools.

Schools are the real world. Only better.

People who criticize schools as isolated from 'reality' haven't been inside a school for a very long time. Schools are more diverse than boardrooms, more creative than most workplaces, better managed than the private sector and more efficient than most public enterprises.

Segregating students by sex, class, religion or culture hurts everyone.

People who aren't sure what schools should look like should consider what they want the world to look like. Unless their ideal world segregates people based on genetic or cultural determinants, their ideal schools shouldn't segregate either. Students' education is compromised if everyone they encounter thinks, looks or prays the same way as their families. The Right frames difference as dangerous, and sameness as comforting. We must frame that viewpoint as contributing to the divisive thinking that has impeded social and economic justice in Canada and around the world.

Corporations that want to help schools should be encouraged to do so by paying their taxes.

The private sector must not claim the right to selectively decide which kinds of students, schools or programs should be 'adopted' by corporations. Schools are not orphans, and shouldn't be treated that way. Corporations that attempt to gain public approval through education 'philanthropy' should be redirected to urging both citizens and governments to meet the need for appropriate funding and public support.

Schools don't just reflect society, they create it.

The outcomes of our worst fears and greatest hopes for the future are being determined by what happens in today's classrooms. When the Right frames education merely preparing students to 'cope with' the future, they are missing the point that education literally creates the future. What we want for the world we must want from our schools, and then work to help them achieve these goals.

It is tempting to justify, to elaborate, to add to this list, to explore the nuances and implications of each of these statements. But perhaps that all-too-familiar approach has been one of our strategic errors. If the Right can claim, pronounce and denounce despite the facts, then we can too, with the confidence that the evidence is on our side.

'What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?' This is one of the key questions framing expert George Lakoff insists that we confront. A high-quality public education system is not just one of the 'ideas' that flow from answering this question, it is the only institution that can guarantee that questions such as these will still be raised decades from now.

Heather-jane Robertson is the author of three books about education in Canada. Her latest book, Great Expectations: Essays on School and Society is available through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (see link below).

Links and sources
  Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Posted: November 11, 2007

  Public services
  Voices of privatization

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