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Friday, 24 June 2011

Democracy in Education

There is a lot of talk about bringing democracy into schools.  It is important to understand what is meant by democracy.  Education in Ontario, and in many countries, is a huge bureaucracy run in a very hierarchical manner.  We have all experienced this in the relative positions of teachers, principals, board representatives, and Ministry representatives.  A hierarchy such as this cannot truly be democratic because there is unequal power and the various levels are not chosen by election.  When a board or school talks about a democratic process, they usually refer to the fact that all, or most stakeholders, were asked for an opinion.  But the leader still made the final decision and is responsible for that decision.  He or she is not required to listen to, or follow, any of the opinions given. 

The best definition of democracy that I have come across, and I cannot remember where, is "a system which follows the wishes of the majority while respecting the rights of the individual".  If we consider the "wishes of the majority" we need to consider the majority of whom?  The majority of the population at large?  Of parents?  Of teachers?  Of educational experts?  Of politicians?  Of board or Ministry personnel?  There is no voting process within the education system.  The only say that the populace has is in electing a premier, who appoints the Education Minister, and electing the School Board Trustees, who do what the Minister says.  Let us look at this from the perspective of a school, particularly the many reforms which have come through the Ontario system in the last years.  New math, whole language, social peers, safe schools, zero tolerance, streaming, integration, credit recovery, co-operative programs, MSIP, full day kindergarten, French immersion, mandatory phys.ed.  How did these reforms come about?  Were they the wishes of a majority?  I would hypothesize that they were the wishes of a special interest group which caught the attention of either the politicians or the media or both.  Many of these ideas are good and have a good intent.  Some are successful for the groups which they represent.  And there is the problem.

We are neglecting the part about the rights of the individual.  In fact, almost all of these reforms are protests by groups of individuals who feel wronged.  The special needs children, the French speakers, the parents needing full day care for their kindergarten children, people against skipping students, parents of students who are struggling with pure academics, etc.  Each reform has its own support group and arguments.  And those arguments are valid for a section of the population.  The difficulty comes when these policies are implemented on a large scale.  The problem is the basic underlying assumption that what is good for some must be good for all.  We are still searching for best practices when there is no such thing in education.  What is best for one student, one school, one community, can be complete disaster for another.  Safe schools are a tragedy for bullies and their families.  Instead of receiving help and support they are banished.  Whole language may have eased the road for some readers but has left most of a generation with appalling writing skills and spelling.  Integration of special needs children is wonderful for them and teaches acceptance for their peers but puts a burden on teachers and withdraws support from other students.  French immersion programs often leave the English only side with few resources and struggling students.  The list could go on.

The point is that there are always two sides, or more, to any issue, particularly when you are dealing with chronically limited resources of time, money, and trained personnel.  The solution is to respect the rights of all individuals.  Only use province wide policies on those areas, like curriculum foundations, which should be equal for all.  Other policies should be decided on a community, school, or individual basis.  Just because some people suffered from having skipped a grade should not translate into a blanket policy of keeping all children with their social peers - essentially eliminating skipping and failing.  (By the way, who ever decided that all children born in the same year are social peers?  Obviously they have never spent any time in a classroom!) 

True democracy is not just about voting.  It is about sharing both the power and the responsibility.   The media likes to blame teachers for poor education and yet the system has taken away almost all of their power.   We hire teachers because they are trained professionals.  Let's give them back the power to do their jobs.  The Ministry can set certain curricular standards to ensure that all students receive a similar education regardless of location.  Beyond that, they should leave the decisions to the professionals.  Do you realize that the Minister of Education  is not required to have any teaching experience or training at all?  What a strange system we have. 

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