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Posts Tagged ‘The State of the System’

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

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The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

A1bBureaucracyMaxWeberIronCage

Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

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The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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