Education reformers in the United States are prone to inflating expectations and promising the world. Safely perched on the North American sidelines, the American “School Wars” are a spectacle to behold. Since the launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the education system has been another front in the high stakes competition for world dominance. Under President Barak Obama, the nation-wide Education Reform agenda is popularly billed as “Race to the Top.” Yet a recent Common Core study of international education standards lauded both Finland and Alberta for their test results, while painting a grim picture of U.S. achievement levels.
Surveying Canadian education reform is next to impossible. The Canadian Council on Learning, founded in 2004, has done its best to produce comparative data. Without any real federal presence in education, taking the pulse involves assessing all 10 provinces and three territories and trying to make some sense of a system with some 5 million students, 375 different school boards and about 15,000 schools. Since Charles Ungerleider’s Failing Our Kids (2003), no one in Canada has even attempted to take stock of the state of public education.
Canada’s provinces are simply all over the map when it comes to school reform. Provincial and board testing programs are finally in place, providing parents, for the first time, with current student test results. The Early Learning Agenda, promoted by Dr. Fraser Mustard, is driving education reform initiatives in Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. The Toronto Board of Education is experimenting with broadening school choice within public education, without any reference to Alberta’s earlier reforms. A few big city boards, most notably the Halifax Board, are hunkered down essentially replicating largely discredited American-style testing regimes.
Ungerleider’s 2003 book captured well the puzzling Canadian “edu-babble” on the subject of comparative educational standards. “Public schooling,” he insisted, ” has never been healthier nor at greater risk.” (p. 9) He gauged the health of the system by citing the rising “attainment levels” and recent PISA results in reading, science, and mathematics. All of the threats he traced back to the incursion of “market forces” into the Canadian system. We were, according to Ungerleider’s peculiar logic, “ruining our public schools” by expecting too much of teachers and students.
Americans, on the other hand, may lead the world in overblown rhetoric about “school reform.” That is why Robert J. Samuelson’s recent Washington Post column (September 6, 2010) really hit home and attracted widespread attention in the United States. For once, an American education critic took a step back and took a hard, dispassionate look at what wave after wave of school reform has actually achieved for students. With 56 million children returning to the nation’s 133,000 schools, he claimed that ” few subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery” than “school reform.” (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/05/AR2010090502817.html)
Cutting to the chase, why had American school reform produced such meagre results? Here’s Samuelson’s incisive analysis of the U.S. reform scene:
“Reforms have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge “ineffective” teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards… ( according to prominent U.S. college and university officials )
Against these realities, school “reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations. Even if George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program had been phenomenally successful (it wasn’t), many thousands of children would have been left behind. Now Duncan routinely urges “a great teacher” in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million “great” teachers — a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school “reform” promises is more disillusion.”
Samuelson’s persuasive critique packs some powerful lessons for Canadian education reformers of all stripes. His two key points are particularly telling. Surveying Canadian reform projects, how many can we identify that are “scalable” or transferable on a larger scale? And where are the gains we expected and sought in “student motivation”? What good are all these advances, if students simply won’t do the work and get rewarded anyway?
What are the lessons for Canadian school reformers? Replicating American education reform initiatives may not lead us to nirvana. How much of Samuelson’s analysis applies to Canadian education reform? If we are so different, where are the results?