Sunday, December 11, 2011

bcedplan: a return to 19th century schooling?

It is ironic that the moniker of "21st century learning" has been used to describe the recent school reform movement in the US and Canada. Because in fact, this movement has, as one of its core principles, the notion of "school choice" - a decidedly 19th century educational policy.

Although state funded schooling existed sporadically in the 19th century, universal public education is really a product of the early twentieth century, with the introduction of mandatory school attendance. Compulsory schooling laws were introduced following confederation and were in place in every province in Canada by 1933.

But prior to compulsory schooling, throughout most of the 19th century, western nations including Canada had a great degree of "choice" and "flexibility". Schooling was a combination of market based services (private/religious/grammar schools), charitable schools for the poor, and home schooling (non attendance). Choice for the few who could afford it.

The rationale for compulsory schooling and the provision of state funded schools was not always for the best reasons. In fact, at its heart was industry's need for a literate workforce. Mass schooling also incorporated racist notions of the need for the state to impose the dominant cultural norms on immigrants (in public schools) and First Nations (via residential schools).

Yet as the twentieth century progressed, the introduction of other universal social programs (unemployment insurance, public health insurance) and the post-war "social contract" brought notions of equity, fairness, and the opportunity for social mobility to the public school system.

This culminated in the progressive changes in the post World War Two period, when a massive expansion of the public system coincided with a new social contract based on principles of equality and fairness. For schooling this meant the rights of every child to an equal educational opportunity - regardless of race, class, gender or location. Thus was born the neighbourhood comprehensive school - ensuring each child in every locality had access to the full breadth of school programs funded by the state. The inclusion of children with special needs through a Charter of Rights case ensured that mental and physical disability, as well, was not a reason to segregate or offer substandard opportunities. This took place in British Columbia beginning in 1945 with the Cameron Commission, which set up provincial funding to deal with vast regional disparities when schools relied on local taxation.

The current reform movement, with its focus on competition, market driven systems, false accountability, choice and flexibility, is the antithesis of an equitable and fair opportunity for every child. Rather than focusing on all children, it focuses on individual parents' ability to "choose" the "best" for "their" child. It is a system with winners and losers. Right neighborhood. Ability to bus to a school of choice. Access to special fee-based programs. Even a simplified system of "shopping" for schools via state mandated testing to produce school rankings (via the Fraser Institute and the Foundation Skills Assessment).

All of it is a slow and steady return to the Dickensian days of 19th century schooling.

No comments:

Post a Comment