Monday, December 10, 2012

Losing public control of public education

We elect three different governments to look after different parts of our school system. Locally elected School Boards develop budgets, define policy, and manage the day to day running of Districts. Provincial governments set curriculum and most education policy. They create the legal and regulatory framework for schools. The federal government plays a role in Aboriginal education and French education.

But there are others wanting a say in how schools are run and governed, and they were not chosen by you or me. They are the ever growing field of education lobby groups - both non-profit and corporately funded. Sadly, our governments are more and more adopting their ideas rather than those of their electorate.

The earliest and perhaps most influential is the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), an organization of which Canada is a member. This organization is not neutral - it aims to foster global development through economic growth. It therefore has a focus on skills and training in relation to education. It is the OECD that conducts the international standardized PISA tests that compare students from different countries in reading, writing, math and science. Noticeably absent from the OECD education program is any mention of education beyond training for the workforce or the role of education  in fostering and enhancing democracy.The OECD looks through just one lens - economic development.

There is the Global Education Leaders Partnership. This is a self-styled independent but corporate backed lobby group. GELP was instrumental in fostering and helping develop the BC education plan, behind closed doors.

There is C21 Canada - again, a corporately funded lobby group whose objectives orient around technology integration and radical change to schooling. They describe themselves:

“C21 Canada is a national, not for profit organization that advocates for 21st Century models of learning in education. The goal of C21 Canada is to witness an accelerated pace of 21st competencies, instructional practices, and digital resources and services being integrated into Canada’s learning systems. C21 Canada is a unique blend of national education associations and knowledge sector businesses united in their belief that 21st Century models of learning must be adopted in public education on an urgent basis to position Canadians for economic, social and personal success in the high skills, knowledge and innovation based economy.”

C21 Canada is funded primarily by business: Dell, EF Educational Tours, IBM, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Microsoft, Nelson Education, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Scholastic Education, Smart Technologies; as well as two non-profit groups: the Canadian School Board Association and the Canadian Education Association.

Their discussion document, Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision for Public Education in Canada  provides insight into their values.

Despite the claim that “Canadians would prefer to see a national learning vision founded on Canadian values and principles”  the content is remarkably similar to what has been articulated in both the US and the UK by similar corporately backed non-profit lobby groups.

There is the promotion of 21st Century “competencies” - a shift from content based curriculum to skill based curriculum.

They also promote “radical transformation”, envisioned as “core  elements  of  public  education  that  must  undergo  elements  of transformation. This systemic change must be strategic and focused to be successful.” It includes curriculum overhaul, changes in pedagogy, modifying the learning environment, changing school governance structures and citizen engagement.  There is a heavy focus on technology, including: “anytime, anywhere learning”, “personalized learning opportunities” for “all students”, a commitment that “on-line learning, blended learning and virtual schools must be pursued as viable and relevant options to meeting the needs of many learners”, and “assistive technologies to support the diversified needs of learners must be ubiquitous.”

There are private consultants, to help you transform your education system. One is 21st Century Learning Associates, a private business run by John Kershaw, the former Deputy Minister of Education in New Brunswick. These consultants are ready to step in when governments hire them for “Strategic Planning: Visioning and strategic planning expertise and development services in the field of public education, including policy, legislative and regulatory.

But sometimes governments just go straight to the source: the corporations themselves. Manitoba has just announced their 21st Century Learning initiative:

The Ministry of Education of the Government of Manitoba is set to make a major announcement to encourage youth to pursue careers in technology on December 5.

The Ministry, represented by Deputy Minister Dr. Gerald Farthing, as well as the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), along with Google Canada, Cisco Canada and Canada’s Association of IT Professionals (CIPS) will host a launch event in Winnipeg to kick off a major initiative.

The tsunami of education reform is coming our way, and it is coming not from the needs and wants of parents and students. It is coming from the plethora of individuals, private businesses, non-profit lobby groups and corporations who have something to gain.


  1. Awesome work.You know the score. You forgot Ontario! We're even worse. Look at Michael Fullan on Daily Censored.

  2. Great article... like many others, I'm so glad you take the time to explore these issues... two thing stuck out for me, maybe you could provide further thoughts:

    “Canadians would prefer to see a national learning vision founded on Canadian values and principles” (from p.3) -- what Canadian values do you think they are trying to appeal to? It kind of reminded me of how the Harper State appeals to nationalism and the Canadian Way (which they seek to redefine along party lines). On the other hand, how do we define the "needs and wants of parents and students?" Our education system serves many masters, including the global economy, so I suppose it will always be a battleground of values.

    "There is the promotion of 21st Century “competencies” - a shift from content based curriculum to skill based curriculum." -- why is this a corporate perspective? Do you see an agenda, beyond relevance, to the shift to competencies? I can think of a couple of reasons, but I'm curious to hear your perspective.

    1. Alfie Kohn has a very good book...What does it mean to be educated...that delves into that question. I also think you can look to private schools. Interestingly, parents want, and private schools offer, small classes, solid curriculum based on academics, a variety of well funded arts and sports programs, school trips. They are not nearly so subject to flavour of the day edu-fads. I also think the Charter for Public Education Network...which went through a process of actually asking parents and community members, is a good place to look. Obviously, not one answer to that question.

      But yes...the neo-Liberal vision, Friedman vision...whatever you call it, sees education as primarily job training. The Harper vision is probably even more certainly does contain nationalism and reactionary ideas. Schools have a dual function - they can provide skills and knowledge that enable growth and fulfillment and emancipation but also they indoctrinate to the prevailing viewpoints. Just like religion, this can serve a progressive or a reactionary agenda, depending on the circumstance.

      On competencies...I am just writing my next post on that topic! I will leave it for there.

    2. Looking forward to your next post! I'm interested to see what gets published from the Ministry as a result of their community dialogue on grad requirements. I'd like to walk a group of students through a variety of "expectations" from their community, society, selves, parents, teachers, etc. and have them decide on a set of values they wish to appeal to in their self-assessment. Let's face it, as much as we all teach the same curriculum, the values we usually hold up as curricular goals are often our own. Sometimes that's a good thing.

  3. Your posts make me think! Thank you. I am a transplant from BC into Saskatchewan. I definitely saw this in BC, but I see Saskatchewan following down the same road. The division I am in is adopting a framework from Ken O'Connor, "The Grade Doctor". I was wondering where the Fraser Institute fits into this scenario.