September 09, 2004

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After a year in residence here I have come to appreciate the differences in education that the 49th parallel demarcates.

One way in which to gain insight is to dwell continually in one place and study it in depth, another is to live in varied places and experience the contrasts among them.

Moving to Canada and joining Simon Fraser University has provided me with another opportunity in my life for the latter. After a year in residence here I have come to appreciate the differences in education that the 49th parallel demarcates. My journey of reflection is just beginning, so I can provide a status report but not a set of conclusions.

British Columbian observers of the U.S. cannot help but notice that a 20-year trend toward federal influence in basic education there reached an apotheosis with George W. Bush's No-Child-Left-Behind legislation. Finally a definition of public schooling that revolved around accountability as measured by standardized testing had the maximum power of federal suasion and dollars behind it. A full set of sanctions was put in place to punish schools, students, and educators who did not measure up to the act's criteria. In this culminating initiative we are presented with a stark contrast between the two North American societies in the context of their views on education and, perhaps by extension, other socially oriented policy.

It is a truism in U.S. political circles that, regarding education and a number of other pursuits, “everything that exists in quantity can be measured.”

The effort to stake out limitations for that principle when dealing with human service activities, such as schooling, is generally an exercise in futility in the U.S. and one that is characterized as being against standards or making excuses for the shortcomings of educators.

In B.C. there appears to be an appreciation among educators, policymakers, and researchers that, even were this notion true, the methods to validate it are never truly implemented due to the scope and duration of such a type of research. As a consequence we have in B.C. a careful and constantly monitored process of balancing evaluation tools so that false certitude does not outweigh humane values and professional judgment.

One of the principal conditions that mobilizes silver bullet and quick fix approaches in the U.S. is the exclusion of educators from the formation of education policy. This is a stark contrast to B.C. where the power of the B.C. Teachers Federation and other organizations of educators, as well as the structure of the College of Teachers, assure a place at the table for these professionals.

Everyone has been reminded of this power sharing by the recent struggle over the constitution of the College of Teachers council. To some of us, all that noise was the sound of democracy working. Ultimately it is a welcome cacophony.

The U.S. seems to me to have a love-hate relationship with education. There is great support for schools with respect to their role in promoting economic advancement.

Let a thousand Silicon Valleys bloom.

At the same time a majority of Americans are fundamentally opposed to the reconstructive aspects of education: racial integration, secularism, the promotion of aesthetic values over material ones, progressive attitudes toward social renewal, and so on. These dimensions are characterized in the popular mind by events such as the free speech movement at Berkley many years ago. It may be that here in B.C. educators are also a strong voice of the political left, but with a difference: popular understanding of democracy apparently extends to the belief that a range of orientations should join in public debate on the way to policy formation. Even if educators lean in one direction, there are other institutions and organizations that provide countervailing opinions for the public, and youth, to contemplate. Let the debate begin.

In my opinion, the social contract regarding public education in the U.S. has been seriously damaged. This contract held the common school as a public good, provided by the community for its children and youth.

The school was to be a place in which the caveat emptor of the marketplace was suspended and society to a significant degree put its best foot forward in an altruistic gesture toward the young. The public schools existed in a non-partisan zone of protection, insulated from the profit motive and partisanship. Contracts with junk food companies, the use of school matters as wedge issues by politicians, the introduction of for-profit school management companies, and big time lobbying by testing and textbook publishers are among the practices that have eroded these principles.

All this has happened without serious debate to reflect upon the principles on which free, public schools were built. A fundamental societal institution, responsible in many ways for the rise of the U.S. nation, is being disassembled in stages without the large issues at stake being discussed or understood. Unrecognized is the principle that the public schools are not just another routine business or agency of government - they are a defining institution in U.S. history.

In this story there may be a cautionary tale present for B.C. The same market and ideological forces are in play here, although their progression has been met with some resistance. Public education, just as other institutions, should be subject to reform, but one hopes the debate will include consideration of the larger principles that are involved, not simply short term fiscal gains or the application of the unproven notion that the free market does everything better.

Additionally all schooling has an ideological dimension. By the curricular choices we make, for example, we paint a certain vision of the world and our society. Whom do we trust to do that? If we give such power over to corporations or religious groups, for example, are we in this way giving our political community over to them? Are we diffusing the common identity of the nation?

Or, to put it another way, are we replacing the organic development of a multicultural community with the influence of interest groups who aim at creating a hierarchy of culture in which their perspective is dominant?

In British Columbia I am learning about Canada's commitment to multiculturalism and how this plays out in government policy. One of the most striking differences from the U.S. is the willingness to directly fund religious schools.

Currently the case of Bountiful has brought this issue wide publicity and illustrated how difficult issues of church and state can be when put in the cauldron of public education.

This principle also came to the fore earlier this year during the debate over France's ban of overt religious symbols in schools. This legislation was roundly criticized all over the English-speaking world. British Columbia and the U.S. seem to share a discomfort in looking hard at the nature of secularism and whether lines must be drawn to preserve this value in our political cultures.

So far in my stay at SFU, the bottom line for me has been the manner in which I see democracy functioning in Canada at local levels and beyond.

The debates over issues seem far more substantive and frank than what I had become accustomed to in the U.S. There is apparent respect for professional expertise, including that of educators.

I discern a commitment to solving problems rather than denying their existence. There is less self-interested posturing posing as principled positions. There is little tolerance of techniques - such as labelling, name-calling - that silence debate rather than extend it. The media are more responsible.

Paul Shaker is dean of education at SFU. Out of step with U.S. politics, he is a refugee entering Canadan from the 1960s.

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