Bright red pencils and bold X’s used to be the preferred tools of correction in the North American classroom. Those methods came naturally to educators with a bred-in-the-bone urge to correct others. Today the red pencils and self-esteem destroying X’s are gone, but the underlying instincts to correct others remain. That may explain why a Toronto-based group known as Facts in Education (FiE), spearheaded by Dr. Ben Levin, has arisen to defend the education system by identifying and “outing” errors of fact and unsubstantiated opinion in the popular media. Upset with the media, the group, claiming to be “a non-partisan panel of experts,” has set out to combat and correct the “excessively negative, sensationalistic, or just plain wrong coverage of education” in Canada.
The Facts in Education initiative is the creation of Ben Levin and actually run by two of his graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. His panel of experts, now numbering 21 educators, reads like a Who’s Who of the Toronto-based Canadian education establishment. Most of the members are education administrators, faculty of education professors, and former school superintendents rather than academics and, with the exception of Dr. Charles Ungerleider of UBC, all are in the Toronto-OISE orbit. Recognized scholars with a more independent bent like Kieran Egan, Paul Axelrod, David R. Johnson, Dennis Mulcahy, and Jamie Metsala are conspicuous by their absence from that list of ‘gatekeepers.’
The Levin Group claims to be guarding the “facts” of Canadian education and functions much like a “truth squad” pouncing upon offending news reports and even objectionable opinion columns. A recent paper delivered to the American Educational Research Association (April 26-May 1, 2013) in San Francisco is almost laughable. In it Levin and two of his proteges describe how they interrogate troublesome columns by The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente and even feature articles in the Walrus Magazine. What upsets them most is “poor framing, sensationalized or misguided opinion” known in the outside world as freedom of opinion and expression.
Ben Levin’s feature essay, entitled “Getting to Better Schools” Literary Review of Canada (June 2013), provides deeper insights into their outlook and peculiar “reformist” mindset. The Canadian education system, according to Levin, is definitely not in crisis and that is presented an incontestable fact. Indeed, “proper framing” demonstrates that Canadian education should be viewed through an Ontario lens and educational reform is the Ontario Dalton McGuinty reform program writ large.
Dr. Levin makes a heroic effort to dispel any public perception that the education system is in crisis. A recent Ipsos Reid poll, released 6 September 2012, would tend to suggest otherwise. An overwhelming majority of Canadians (86%) now express concern about public elementary school children’s performance in reading, writing, and mathematics. Furthermore, contrary to Levin and his allies, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) agreed that “standardized testing” was “a good way” to measure and compare students’ performance against other provinces and countries.
To be fair, Levin accepts the fact that the system is not perfect, but then proceeds to identify supposed weaknesses like program supports for the poor, minorities, aboriginal people, and students with disabilities, which are actually our current strengths, compared to most other developed OECD nations. What he is really proposing is tinkering with the status quo rather than any reform agenda addressing broader public concerns.
Leading Canadian educators like Levin find it difficult to confront the system that they themselves have helped to shape and tend to have a few blind spots. More objective analysts seeking to assess the state of Canadian K-12 education would draw upon the independent research of the Canadian Council of Learning and, more importantly, from the findings of its Final Report. It might have been helpful, for example, to reference Dr. Paul Cappon’s October 2010 assessment that “Canada is slipping down the international learning curve” and that “we are not going to compete in the future unless we get our act together.” While Levin lauds the Canadian system for “the consistent quality of our schools,” he seems to brush aside Cappon’s key finding that “we have very little information nationally about how we are doing.”
Scraping below the surface, what education reforms does Levin actually support? More spending on public education, raising graduation rates, poverty reduction measures, investing in arts education, expanded co-op and workplace education, and presumably less emphasis on public accountability testing programs. And, of course, “mobilizing knowledge” to advance that cause. In other words, maintenance of the Canadian education status quo. That’s also a reasonable facsimile of the aspirational McGuinty Education Agenda from 2003 until 2011.
While purportedly addressing the perils and pitfalls of education reform, Levin seems remarkably resistant to the more popular panaceas — parental choice, standardized testing, teacher quality-evaluation reform, and alternative charter school programs. In a nutshell, he seems to be gently and diplomatically rejecting the main tenets of the current North American education reform movement. It all sounded so reasonable that his hidden message almost escaped my notice.
What is the real purpose of the Toronto-based group known as Facts in Education? Why are the “facts” in Canadian K-12 education so closely guarded? Do we really need an educational “truth squad” to police the popular media and disseminate the conventional wisdom of the current educational establishment? Most importantly, what are up and coming policy researchers being taught at OISE and possibly other faculties of education?