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Curing the Schools to Death: Saving Public Education from its Defenders


Like medical doctors seeking “magic bullet” treatments for lifestyle-related diseases, public education advocates trying to innoculate schools against an infection of creeping corporatism are misguided. Public schools will continue to fall prey to a host of ills as long as they are weakened by a monopolistic top-down governance. The surest route to public schools that are vigorous and resistant to infection is more autonomy at the school level and empowerment of parents through meaningful choice.

The opinions here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect those of the staffs or members of any of the organizations with which Mr. Robson is affiliated.


William Robson

 Author Notes

Senior Policy Analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, member of the Ontario Parent Council, director of the Organization for Quality Education, the Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, and the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education.

 Essay - 5/1/1996

Growing discontent in public opinion polls, rising private school enrollments and a new energy and aggressiveness among reformers are symptoms of the declining health of Canada's public schools. Rather than consensus about reform, however, public education's increasingly sickly state has provoked bifurcated reactions with parallels in the responses of medical experts and the general public to threats to physical health.

In one camp are those who see sickness as a reflection of constitutional weakness – as when malnutrition, an unhealthy lifestyle or other environmental factors weaken an organism's immune system. Although most environmental factors affecting public education's health do not lend themselves to easy remedy, one prescription arising from this school of thought is straightforward: public schools are weak because a critical force that lends vigour to other institutions – the ability of informed users to choose the service that best meets their needs — is weak. Better informed and more meaningful choices would, according to this view — which I share — produce healthier schools.

In the other camp are those for whom sickness is produced by the invasion of a particular pathogen, and look for "magic bullets" to vanquish it. Many defenders of Canada's public schools see a system under attack by hostile forces. The 1994 book Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada's Schools, by Maude Barlow, veteran of numerous nationalist campaigns, and Heather-jane Robertson, Director of Professional Development with the Canadian Teachers Federation, is perhaps the most prominent and forceful statement of this view.

Sadly, however, like many of their medical forerunners, the assessments of these would-be pathogen fighters appear guided more by their enthusiasm to do battle with a particular infectious agent than by a clear vision of restoring health to a sick system. And, like many patients before them, public schools may find that the treatment their would-be doctors prescribe accelerates, rather than reverses, their decline.

Diagnosing a Corporate Bug

Because Barlow and Robertson's thesis is straightforward, and has prompted so many appearances by the authors in front of sympathetic audiences, it serves as an excellent example of the "magic bullet" approach. In their view, the parents, teachers, education specialists and elected representatives pushing for reform, for more academic content, rigorous assessment and accountability for results in the public school system, are misguided — either dupes or co-conspirators in a concerted campaign by big corporations. Business is trying to take over public education for the sake of new sales opportunities, the imposition of a purely employment-based curriculum, and the chance generally to mould the next generation of students into cogs in the capitalist machine. This is cause for concern, they warn, because the innocent-looking changes demanded by the reformers to give users greater choice would, to resume the medical metaphor, cause a break in the system's skin through which this deadly disease will enter.

Barlow and Robertson's solution follows equally straightforwardly. The movement for academic content, assessment and accountability must be resolutely resisted. An immunizing ideological counterattack must be mounted in the classroom. And the right of parents to choose their children's schools must be tightly circumscribed if a protective shield is to be preserved around a healthy public education system.

Neither agenda — the corporate effort to subvert schools to business interests nor the Barlow-Robertson effort to turn public school students into revolutionary shock troops — seems likely enough of realization to lose sleep over. What should disturb our rest, however, is that most kids in Canadian public school classrooms are getting an education nowhere near commensurate with the resources devoted to it, the talents of many teachers in the system, or the expectations of their parents. It is thus profoundly depressing to see some of public education's fiercest defenders mount a scare campaign against a mythical threat, rather than asking just what it is about today's public schools that makes informed choice appear such a deadly threat to their survival.

A Rather Pathetic Pathogen

To the lips of parents concerned with reforming education, horror stories about the corporate plot to take over public education are most likely to bring, not terrorized shrieks or outraged snarls, but wistful smiles. The truth is that business involvement in public schools is barely sufficient to provide even a few superficial symptoms of the disease their advocates describe.

Supporters of focused curriculum, objective tests and accountability for educators have long looked to the business community for allies. Parents worry that, among other things, inadequate schooling will leave their kids without the knowledge and skills they will need to find secure and rewarding jobs. It is natural for them to expect the business community, focused on competitiveness and increasingly complaining of difficulty in finding skilled workers, to take their side.

Their expectations, however, have been largely disappointed. There are a few exceptions to the rule — individuals with business backgrounds who have made enormous personal efforts, and companies that have lent financial support to the cause. But the business community writ large has been absent from the movement for better quality public education. Class Warfare opens with a list of symptoms of the corporate disease headed by a proposal endorsed by the Business Council on National Issues that business should institute nation-wide exams to be given upon leaving school. Such exams could be very useful. They would establish a benchmark, independent of the educational bureaucracy, by which students, parents, teachers and employers could gauge success. Unfortunately for the diagnosis, however — and unfortunately for those who use and pay for public schools — the proposal bore no fruit: no such exams exist even in embryo.

The Bug is Weak...

Like independent, privately-run exams, strong business involvement in public schools – a dream of many reformers; a nightmare for most of the system's defenders – is not something to be encountered in waking life. For a variety of reasons, the impact of Canada's leading corporations and business groups on the quality of classroom education in the public system has been negligible.

To begin with, shortcomings in public schools result in a pervasive low level deterioration of the economic and social environment, not the sort of immediate shock that would move them to the top of a business agenda. On a personal level, those executives who have school-age children can afford to move to neighbourhoods with better schools, send their children to private schools, or pay for tutors and remedial courses. On the organizational level, increased continental and global labour mobility means that a business' direct stake in the quality of local graduates is diminishing.

If not at the top of an executive's “urgent list,” moreover, education reform is unlikely to get much attention or effort. For it is hard work. Teaching reading, judging students' readiness to move to the next level of study, and managing a school are difficult. Even reading the literature on effective teaching and assessment is more than most educators have done. It is easier for a businessperson to buy a computer for a classroom or sign on to a fad like "outcome-based education" that puts achievement-oriented labels on the familiar knowledge-poor, affective-values approach that already dominates the public system. It is much harder to learn what works — and why it works — well enough to be a forceful advocate.

Education reform is also often unpleasant work. Few sectors of government are more solidly entrenched than the public education system: confronting it requires more aggression and abrasiveness than most parents – let alone executives with no children in the system – are comfortable with. With the state disposing of roughly half the income in the economy, and thousands of bureaucrats in charge of millions of pages of regulations affecting Canadian companies’ prospects in countless ways, moreover, business can ill afford to exhaust its political capital in ways that do not directly affect the bottom line. Being attacked by public school advocates is one more piece of grief that corporate executives do not need.

...But the Patient is Weaker

Of course, the diagnosis of a corporate infection would not be remotely credible if there were no symptoms of business presence anywhere in the public school system. Financial contributions for support functions like breakfast programs and science kits, and even for textbooks, is frequently sought and, less frequently, provided. Partnerships to make available computer hardware, information-technology training and Internet access are springing up. And commercial services in the form of pop machines, cafeteria food, and even advertisements on television screens in the classroom are a highly visible and worrying development.

If this is a pathogenic infection, however, it is of a peculiar kind. The schools and boards of education on the receiving end of corporate support are usually well pleased to have it. And many reformers would be delighted to see corporate involvement in public schools expand. Public education's defenders would do better to expand their field of enquiry a little, and join education reformers in asking why public education is so susceptible to this encroachment. Why, in other words, is its immune system so weak?

On one level, the poor health of public schools is reflected in their failure at many things that rank high in most people's wish-lists when it comes to schools: imparting knowledge; teaching skills; assessing achievement; and reporting results. The latter two failings – largely a consequence of educators seeing their interests served by secrecy, a stance reflected in the hostility of organizations such as the Canadian Teachers Federation to standardized tests – make it difficult to say as much as we might like about the first two. Much of what we do know, however, is not good.

International comparisons, such as the 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress, show that Canadian students perform worse on average than those in other countries, and that this gap in performance widens with years of schooling. Recent immigrants to this country are consistently prominent among finalists in achievement tests such as math olympiads. And the alarm of foreign parents with kids temporarily in Canadian schools as to their falling behind their compatriots when they return is matched by the amazement of Canadians living abroad at schools that are actually demanding. This is anecdotal evidence to be sure — but too recurring to be ignored.

Trends over time are not reassuring either. Tests of basic skills by Nelson Canada have shown a general decline over a generation. And there is evidence from testing programs carried out in some boards of education that recent changes in reading instruction are producing many more children who are labeled "learning-disabled" and will grow up illiterate. As far as assessment is concerned, frustration among parents and teachers over anecdotal report cards and promotion of utterly unprepared students from grade to grade is reflected in the agendas of countless parent-teacher meetings and, increasingly, of teachers' organizations themselves.

In a key sense, however, these failings, which open the public school system to opportunistic infections, are symptoms of deeper physiological decline. There is no mystery about, for example, the importance of phonetic training in learning to read, or the value of direct instruction — organized lessons conducted by a teacher at the front of a classroom — in imparting basic knowledge and skills, especially to students from less promising backgrounds. The research on these matters, based on large-scale empirical investigations, is voluminous.

Comparisons of curricula and instruction techniques in Canada with those abroad, such as that carried out by the Alberta department of education in 1993, suggest strongly that much of the problem in Canadian schools lies in comparatively weak content and chaotic classroom conditions. If the results of this research were acted on in public schools, corporate complaints about ill-prepared students would resonate less loudly, and demand from within the schools for private instruction materials and lesson plans would be less intense.

Similarly, when it comes to the funding pressures that open the doors to corporate partnerships and sponsorships of the kind that many public-education advocates condemn, the problem is not lack of resources. Canada's schools are in the top tier of international comparisons when it comes to money spent per student, but the money is not well spent. Depending on the province, a class of 25 Canadian students costs from $125,000 to $150,000 annually, an amount that ought, after paying even generous salary and benefits to the teacher, leave a lot over for books and pencils, paint and basketballs. Lower overheads, smaller complements of nonteaching staff, and less glitzy teaching aids would ease the strain on classroom resources.

The Lifestyle Causes of Ill Health

For educators prepared to learn and apply what works, and motivated to steer resources into the classroom, these observations are — dare I say it? — common sense. Effective instruction and wise use of resources are common practice in private schools, which is why a rapidly rising proportion of Canadian youngsters has left the public system. The deeper question is why so many educators in the public system not only widely ignore these observations, but actively push the schools further in a contentless and assessment-free direction that is bad for most kids — especially those not from upper- or middle-class homes — and unpopular not only with businesspeople, but with parents and even many teachers.

The answer should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has spent an hour in line at a government office, been caught in a regulatory snarl, or watched in despair as the state has, in its role as custodian, presided over deforestation on land and the exhaustion of fish stocks in the oceans. Government's unique coercive power makes it all too easy for those in it to put their political preferences and material interests ahead of the needs of those who pay their salaries and use their services.

Self-serving behaviour is, of course, not unique to government. In the business sector, however, it is usually constrained by competitors who, unless impeded by state regulation, will tend to offer lower prices and better products that lure customers away from firms where self-serving behaviour is worse. And in the non-profit sector it is constrained by donors, whose interest in the use to which their voluntary donations are put tends to produce low overheads and a strong focus on service to clients.

The "winds of creative destruction", as socialist economist Joseph Schumpeter termed the great source of capitalism's dynamic vitality, blow through the business and non-profit sectors frequently and with great force. Their relative absence in the public sector is a critical flaw, as the passage of time allows the number of people attracted to the public sector because of its unique environment of unaccountability to grow and become entrenched. Therein lies the single most cogent explanation of why public schools are susceptible to a variety of infections and attract attention from quacks and serious physicians alike.

If public education is to survive in anything like its current institutional form, it urgently needs to build a set of incentives that will improve classroom instruction and promote more and better measurement. And those incentives must be based, not on the business partnerships and corporate contracts that public education advocates find obnoxious, but on the same foundation that makes so many non-government institutions so much healthier than their public counterparts – the spur to good performance when those who use their services are able to make meaningful choices.

Prescribing Exercise

Making meaningful choices in education possible means allowing greater diversity of schools and reducing the extent to which public subsidies are available only to schools within the regular public system. Parents more easily able to select among regular public schools and such alternatives as sectarian, private, home-schooling, or independent "charter" public schools will subject ordinary public schools to continuous, diffuse, bottom-up pressure to improve. The essence of the challenge is to make sure that every teacher who loses a pupil to another class, every principal who loses a child to another school, and every board that loses a family to another district feels the loss as a prod to improve performance.

At present, the dissatisfied parent who pulls a child out of a school is likely to prompt a sigh of relief. The principal loses a nagging presence and, if the child ends up in a private school or at home, the public school system as a whole sheds a liability. But this short-term convenience comes at major long-term cost: as the performance of the system as a whole deteriorates, the constituency that will support public schools in the face of corporate encroachment or cuts in government funding erodes. It is far better if public school educators feel the loss of a child as keenly as a store feels the loss of a customer or a charity feels the loss of a donor.

When it comes to widening the options available to parents, the most radical reforms would provide a voucher or tax credit equal to 100 percent of the average cost of educating a student to all parents of school-age children, with a wide variety of institutions — public, private, or home-based — eligible to receive the money. Less drastic, and widely practised, options are available, however, for those who feel that full state funding appropriately runs with full state control. Partial funding of private or home schools, as in half the provinces and many European countries, is easily done, with the spur to improvement in the public system rising as the funding ratio approaches 100 percent.

Equally straightforward is to allow the establishment of charter schools – public schools outside the regular board system – with greater autonomy over matters such as staffing and discipline, and a board of directors drawn from parents, staff, and the local community. The charter school model has had major successes in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Prompted largely by the reaction of inner-city parents against the dismal performance of their local public schools, charter school legislation has now been passed in nearly half the states in the United States. In Canada, embryonic charter schools already operate with considerable autonomy in several provinces, and full-fledged charter schools are now up and running in Alberta.

Of course, well informed parents are more likely to move their children around in a way that improves the vigour of schools generally than are badly informed ones. Given the lip service paid to education's importance, it is ironic that in most provinces and communities it is easier to find information on the ingredients in snack food or the relative performance of stereo equipment than on the quality of local schools. Healthier schools would result from more systematic evaluation of students and schools, and publication of league tables showing not only test results, but also year-to-year advancement and demographic characteristics that would deepen understanding of each school and board's performance.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Strong

One of the more profound and little-noted insights of evolutionary biology is that diversity – not in its "politically correct" sense of uniform biochemical makeup in every organization, but in its genuine sense of differences from one organization to the next – is a source of strength. Diversity allows experimentation and multiplies the opportunities to learn from success and failure. A top-down "one-size-fits-all" approach in a system protected from the consequences of its failures is the key to diagnosing public education's current sickly state. A public school system spurred to better performance by parental choice will be more robust and better able to withstand a variety of infections.

Among the ills that more choice could alleviate, creeping corporatism is nothing compared to the dwindling of confidence in public schools among the general population. It was eroding popular support that led the US National Education Association – a teachers' union whose chronic hostility to an academic curriculum, testing, choice, and the corporate sector rivals that of Canada's most vociferous public school advocates – to endorse charter schools last year. American census data, it bears noting, reveal that public school teachers are far more likely than the general population to send their children to private schools.

Closer to home, Michele Landsberg, whose political orientation ought to make her one of public education's staunchest supporters, recently responded to a Maclean's reporter's question about why she had sent her son to private, and very expensive, Upper Canada College by saying: "It was against our principles to do it, but you do not sacrifice your kid to political principles." Awareness that too many less fortunate kids are being sacrificed to political principles is growing. Public education's advocates desperately need more visibly healthy public schools to make their case.

Given the current sickly state of public education, there is one final point in favour of more choice in a more diverse system: the chance it will give for a variety of doctors to administer their medicines. Advocates of a more rigorous academic focus can have their chance. And advocates of more affectively oriented child-centered schools can have theirs. Perhaps Maude Barlow and Heather-jane Robertson will be inspired to start their own charter school, dedicated to the anti-corporate cause. As long as tests clearly focused on the portion of the curriculum that imparts knowledge and fundamental skills are there to sort the good from the bad, this diversity will be a source of strength. If Barlow/Robertson kids finished Grade 2 able to read, write, add, subtract, name the provinces of Canada – and even offer some trenchant observations on the iniquities of a market economy while they are at it – it would be churlish to object.

In fact, it would be a marvelous thing to see today's public education advocates persuading parents with real alternatives to send their children to such a school. Perhaps the school offering a less tendentious ethical environment next door will attract a few more. Perhaps not – it will depend on its success in delivering the service. Over time, competition between such schools will strengthen the health of public education generally. The alternative – denying choice in the name of a quack cure for the misdiagnosed disease of creeping corporatism – is a better recipe for burying than for saving public schools.

References and Further Reading

Alberta Education. Stevenson Study of Mathematics Achievement in Alberta Schools: Summary Report. Edmonton: 1993.

Barlow, Maude and Heather-jane Robertson. Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada's Schools. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994.

Coalition for Education Reform. Could Do Better: What's Wrong with Public Education in Ontario, and How to Fix It. Toronto: 1994. (Contains an extensive bibliography on effective teaching and assessment.)

Dare, Malkin. http:/www.oqe.org (The Organization for Quality Education home page.)

Doyle, Dennis. Where Connoisseurs Send Their Children to School. Washington, DC: The Center for Education Reform, 1995.

Dwyer, Victor. "The Price of Privilege." Maclean's, 15 May 1995.

Economic Council of Canada. A Lot to Learn: Education and Training in Canada. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1992.

Freedman, Joe. The Charter School Idea. Red Deer: Society for Advancing Educational Research, 1995.

Lawton, Stephen B. Busting Bureaucracy to Reclaim Our Schools. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1995.

Schweitzer, Thomas. The State of Education in Canada. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1995.

Warrick, David. http://www.humberc.on.ca/~warrick/edref.html (Contains links to a wide variety of education-related resources of all stripes.)

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