Education Action: Toronto

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Doug Little on Rich Folks' Education Choices

We Already Know What a Good Education Is, Just Look at What the Rich Give Themselves, says Deborah Meier.

Doug Little

Deborah Meier is a powerhouse on the progressive end of the American education scene. As the retired principal of Central Park East High School, she made John Dewey progressivism work for Harlem kids in a way that nobody else had been able to do. She and Diane Ravitch have an ongoing debate in the American education magazine of record, Education Week. In a recent piece Meier argued that we already know what constitutes a good education. It is what the rich provide for themselves. This is as true in Canada as it is in the USA.

The annual pull-out guide to private schools published in the Globe and Mail makes it clear. Private schools ‘compete’ on their ability to offer lower class sizes and more individual attention, alongside a much enriched curriculum. The private school’s curriculum puts a heavy stress on the arts and the humanities, often beyond the usual history and geography stuff and into philosophy, as well as second and even third languages. They seem to be quite aware that they are training the leadership cadre for the next generation. This program style is often copied by the public schools in affluent neighbourhoods, as much as they can.

Missing from this equation are the shop wings and the “Applied courses” so common in public high schools and apparently required to support a proletarian life. In fact my friend Doug Jolliffe, President of the Toronto High School teachers, OSSTF District 12 pointed out Meier’s observations to me at least 10 years ago. It can lead to one of those ‘sauce for the goose sauce for the gander’ moments of clairvoyance when it all becomes clear to you that the school system is very heavily involved in social reproduction while it masquerades as a system based on ‘equality of opportunity’. When one looks for example, at the placement of major tech schools in Toronto or Van Tech in Vancouver, or similar placements across the country it is clear, at least in the beginning, that these were placed in blue collar neighbourhoods after WW1 when the vets came home and demanded the right to go to high school for the first time in large numbers. The good middle class citizens of Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and other cities of course said, “Absolutely you can go to high school in large numbers, just not OUR high schools.”

There are some in Toronto, I don’t know about the other cities that decry the falling enrolment of tech schools as gentrification takes over the old neighbourhoods and blue collar immigrant families orient their kids away from tech schools and towards universities. This is coming at the same time as the sophisticated retrofits and new CAD-CAM style equipment necessary to make tech schools relevant has become prohibitively expensive and has been essentially rerouted to the CAAT system.

So what? So should schools heavily invest in a type of preordination or should the schools be the agents of equality through the upward mobility of poor and working class kids and some minorities by de-streaming as much as possible and orienting more and more kids to higher and higher levels of education to satisfy both our equity agenda and our human capital agenda? There is a great deal of evidence that the jobs of the near future will not necessarily all require high levels of education. Such jobs as truck driver and middle tier jobs in the health sector are on the rise while we actually have a large number of unemployed engineers.

There is an old critique on the left that is still alive, particularly in some labour circles that runs along this line, “why are you telling all the kids to go to university? There is nothing wrong with being a carpenter or a plumber or a secretary. We just need to pay them more so they can be assured of a middle class life style.” This argument often comes from teachers themselves. They leave themselves wide open for the comeback, “oh is that where you put your son or daughter.” This usually elicits the response that they have been fouled with a low blow but people need to think about what they say.

To conclude, we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions. If the rich are onto something here and small class sizes, individual attention and a highly enriched curriculum with the arts and humanities as the centrepiece is really the route to an enriched and meaningful life, then why are we attempting to destroy this in our public schools with endless testing, drilling, too much emphasis on reading skills and not enough on meaning, crowding out and jamming the arts and humanities, and so on.

I still remember the words of a consultant I heard in my first 2-3 years of teaching who said, “Technology may be the way that many of us will make our living in the future but always remember that it is the arts and humanities that make life worth living.” In the end, which do we believe, 1) only the rich should have an enriched education with small classes because after all they deserve it more than we do, or 2) An enriched curriculum and small classes ought to be available to all kids because we believe in equality and opportunity? Discuss.

This article has been taken with the author’s permission from the The Little Education Report, an extraordinarily valuable source on what’s happening in education today. You can find it at http://www.thelittleeducationreport.com/index.htm


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