Public consultation in education is now mostly formalized, increasingly professionally-managed, and too often perfunctory. Concerned parents and citizens fighting school closures or raising “mission-critical” issues are invited to a formal school board meeting, given 5 minutes at the microphone and politely thanked for coming. School trustees listen, but do they hear? You never know and that simply adds to your sense of unease.
Telling tales “out of school” used to be frowned upon in education. Just as “tattle-tales” were not welcome on the playground, grumbling about the system has always tended to occur in around the coffee machine, in the parking lot, or inside local donut shops.
Now the official “education partners” in Nova Scotia and elsewhere are out to change all that by redefining what “Telling Tales” really means. With the launch of their cheery and attractive new website, “Get Educated,” public school parents are invited to tell “TRUE STORIES about the positive impact of the P -12 education system in Nova Scotia.” ( http://www.nstalesoutofschool.ca)
School boards and key stakeholders are adept at making it look like they are open to comment and feedback from parents and taxpayers. Upon closer scrutiny, that is not exactly what the promoters of the system have in mind. You are invited to “register” and then asked to submit only personal anecdotes about what a great system we have here in Nova Scotia.
Happy talk is the currency of education officialdom. What’s new about the Nova Scotia initiative is that the “team” of cheerleaders has expanded. In 2009-10, the Nova Scotia coalition that launched the infamous “Save Grade 2” public relations exercise included the organized voices of school boards, teacher unions, and senior administrators. This time around, the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations is on board.
When the Canadian provincial common school systems were founded in the mid-19th century, they claimed to provide “education for all” and sought to implant the sturdy values of honest effort and industriousness. Some idealists believed that the system was also capable of inculcating democratic values and good citizenship.
School board and “system partner” PR exercises demonstrate just how far we have drifted from those founding ideals. Openness and public participation are now viewed as terribly threatening. Only those parents who pass a ‘loyalty test” are welcome to register their opinions.
School systems under stress tend to block out not only unpleasant messages, but also constructive criticism. Three years ago, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, based in Halifax, sponsored a Public Lecture series on “Trust in Education.” That ground-breaking series pointed out how supporters of public education could restore “public trust” in the system.
Public consultation exercises fly completely in the face of the Centre’s findings and recommendations. Telling the unvarnished truth and admitting your mistakes and shortcomings was identified by former McGill University president Dr. Bernard Shapiro and others as the fundamental starting point in recovering public confidence.
Since the “Powers that Be” in public education only welcome happy talk, it’s left to concerned parent and citizen groups to organize their own PUblic Forums and rallies to give parents and citizens a real opportunity to be heard and an outlet for their views, good, bad, or ugly (within reason).
That is what motivated us to organize a Public Forum on “Putting Students First and Fixing our Schools” (Monday March 28, 2011) at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, 6199 Chebucto Road, Halifax. (www.aims.ca)
Concerned parents and taxpayers have real stories to tell about our schools and need opportunities to voice them. It’s not new. That’s what public education is supposed to be all about. It’s high time we put students first in education.
That leads us to the Big Question: Why does Big Education seek to channel and limit public input on critical educational issues? Have perfunctory public presentations and “screened entry” websites all but replaced honest, open, frank public discussion? And what can be done to restore the public voice in today’s bureaucratic education state?