WHAT DO MERE PARENTS KNOW ABOUT HOW SCHOOLS SHOULD BE RUN?
IF THE GREAT EDUCATION REFORM ever does happen in Canada, and the schools from sea to sea excite, delight and expand the intelligence of all children, something will first of all have been done to close the credibility gap between educators and parents.
There are few Canadian institutions so walled in by distrust of society as the schools of the land. A majority of administrators, principals and teachers maintain, privately, that parents are both vain and evil, seeking to aggrandize themselves by means of the gold stars their children can be bullied into winning. They keep parents out of classrooms as though open-heart surgery were in progress, feed them a bland diet of soporific get-acquainted meetings during which nothing interesting or informative is said, treat them in individual encounters with the slightly jolly overpoliteness that expresses dislike.
It’s curious, because most parents retrogress and lose their poise when entering a school. They tip-toe uneasily down the galoshes-fringed corridors, line up with childish meekness for a half hour to exchange embarrassed inanities with a teacher for a clocked five minutes, begin conversations with principals by apologizing for interrupting them with such a trivial matter as the welfare of a child.
Further, parents seem to put limitless and uncritical faith in the wisdom of administrators who are ex-math teachers and school trustees who are insurance agents and milliners to rule on the content of the curriculum, the shape of school architecture, the definition of frills and the fate of live-year-olds.
Most co-operatively of all, parents tend to accept without question the school’s evaluation of their offspring, as though it were some joint pronouncement from Moses, the Caped Crusader and Wernher von Braun unearthed in a Galilean cave. Rare is the parent who, when presented with a report card bearing the teacher’s comment, “Could do better work,” snaps back, “Could not!”
Only a few parents are made militant by a teacher who is unfair and sadistic or when a child’s marks fall below expectations. In the latter case, cheerlessly, parents tend to feel the school should do a better job of hustling the child, rather than demanding that he be educated instead of demoralized. In any case, the result is the same: schools put all complaints in a chute emptying directly into Hudson Bay and the only change in the situation occurs in the parents' blood pressure.
In Winnipeg last December a principal attending a Manitoba Teachers’ Society meeting checked with his school and came away from the telephone grimly. “A mother is raising hell in my office because her child is having a bad time with his teacher. The worst of it is, she’s absolutely right — the teacher is a monster.” Still, nothing would be done. The principal already had overcrowded the only alternative-teacher’s room with children he felt needed protection, and the tyrannical teacher wouldn't be fired because she was in her final year before retirement. Why wasn't she fired years ago? The principal shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I just inherited her.”
Despite the evidence that parents are as harmless as ninnies when dealing with schools, educators in the main are convinced that parents are an antagonistic reactionary mob rumbling malevolenti} all around them. Teachers gather in their lounges and principals and administrators cluster at conventions, talking about this all-powerful, sinister and slavering enemy lurking outside, and it turns out that they mean parents. If they happen to discuss ungrading primary classes, an idea that has few detractors among the experts these days, one of them is sure to sigh, “Yes, but the parents would never let us.” If the topic is abolishing report cards in favor of well-prepared private interviews, the subject is closed when someone reminds the group. “We’d never get the parents to accept it.”
Surveying the disparities in the educational scene, two famous United States educators, John J. Goodlad and Robert H. Anderson, wrote in The Nongraded Elementary School, “Whether a child is promoted or not depends on the area where he goes to school — yet parents think teachers don’t want to change and teachers think parents prefer the status quo.”
The blame for the mutual misconception lies mainly with the schools. In every instance in Canada where educational reform was conducted after parents had been fully informed of what was being attempted and the reasons for the change, parents were enthusiastic and supportive. In cases where parents have reacted in wrath and resentment, it is usually found that the school behaved arrogantly. (Parent-Teacher and Home and School organizations are rarely a vehicle of communication, being essentially neutral to matters more profound than the annual Fun Fair.) In his book, When Teachers Face Themselves, Arthur T. Jersild, professor of education at Columbia University, listed at the top of his recommendations for ungrading a school: “Take time to get full parental understanding and consent.-’ He put obtaining the co-operation of all the teachers involved second to the endorsation of parents.
"HE TRICK, IN SOME AREAS, is to convince disenchanted parents that the schools require their presence for a purpose nobler than listening to a nervous spinster explain “Art in the Elementary Schools. ' Some successful schemes are Machiavellian. When Dr. Cecil P. Collins and his gallant band of one-room-schoolhouse teachers decided to ungrade the primary levels in a rural and conservative area of Saskatchewan in 1950. the
parents received a cunning notice inviting them to a meeting to "discuss the promotion of your child.” Ninety-eight percent came.
Edward Rutherford, principal of Argentina Public School, in an area of Toronto populated by solid, striving central Europeans, gets up to 95 percent attendance at every parents’ meeting he calls. His technique is to invite parents by grades — kindergarten parents one night, grade-five another. Rutherford and the appropriate classroom teachers outline the school program, show recent slides taken of the children in the school, distribute fat. explanatory booklets illustrated with rough Gestetner-printed photographs of the children. .
XPLAINS RUTHERFORD, a passionate idealist about his trade. "The parents say to the child, ‘What did you do in school today?’, and the child says. ‘We played.' How does that sound to the parents? Terrible. So we show these pictures of the child playing with four trucks and four cars and demonstrate how a child learns addition and subtraction that way.”
After the instruction, there's an hour-long question period. The parents ask tough questions and get level answers. Why don’t you use the strap? Because there always is a better way to discipline children and because a child who has cruelty used against him will grow into an adult who uses cruelty against others. Why doesn’t my little one have any homework? Because it's more important to his development to use his time at home to finish being a child. In Rutherford’s school, most parents don't protest at receiving report cards that have no marks or comparisons of any kind.
Four years ago. Forest Hill, a recently absorbed inner suburb of Toronto, ungraded primary classes, but for two years prior to the switchover it carefully prepared parents for the move. The administrators went further than merely informing parents: they invited the entire community to a meeting that packed the high-school auditorium. “If you want to put in any major changes,” cautions a Forest Hill principal, James L. Williamson. “you have to have the parents with you."
Although Forest Hill parents are mostly attachecase, successful people, the kind who seem to thrive on competition and tension, they listen thoughtfully as Williamson outlines the next logical step after ungrading: eliminating the tension and competitiveness of term-end examinations. “The only place for an examination is at the beginning of each school year,” he tells them. “We need a diagnostic test then to discover where the student left off, so we can take him on from that point.” Williamson, a seasoned and patient strategist, doesn't claim to have convinced all parents, but he’s gaining support steadily.
Some experimenters, indeed, have been having the chastening experience of imagining themselves to be solitary front-runners with a sacred flame, only to find a horde of parents well ahead of them, tapping their feet. When Regina’s bouncy Separate School Board toe-tested ungrading in 1958 by starting it in one school, the city’s parents complained fiercely: they wanted ungrading in all schools, and right away.
“And we had been worried that the parents would react against ungrading, not being able to know what grade their child was in." recalls Lew Riederer. Regina’s Director of Education for Separate Schools. 'We realize now that if educators really had their car to the ground they'd know that the public is burning for school improvements. You just can't say that parents are impediments to change.”
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IS YOUR CHILD’S SCHOOL GOOD OR RAD? HERE’S HOW YOU CAH TELL
GOOD SCHOOLS, in the past, were the ones with the most obedient students. Definitions have changed: the best schools now are those in which children are learning. Here are some things to watch for:
THE CLOSED DOOR: The traditional classroom, one teacher all day, every day, facing silent rows of children, has been discredited. Primary children need to move around and chat, as kindergarten children do; their classrooms, therefore, require soundproof floor coverings. The concept of fitting the education to the child, rather than the soulbreaking reverse, means there must be smallgroup mobility within the classroom. In Canada, however, most desks are movable but few are moved. Students must be out in the community, well-briefed for visits to construction sites, farms, police stations, mental hospitals, airports, hotels.
CURRICULUM: Beware of the school that sticks to one textbook per year per subject, and never swerves from the schedule. In such cases, only two or three children in each class are learning — the rest are floundering or are bored. A good teacher fragments the class into groups, with children arranged differently for each subject; there'll be no punitive streaming of a solid block of bright students and another of dolts. The entire class should be having all-day access to a well-stocked library, and the teacher should be training students to research for themselves and to pursue tangents. Wonder out loud why the curriculum is so crowded and if it is relevant. Look at the textbooks: Manitoba is using a 1948 physics text that promises a wonder called televsion.
FLOATING TEACHERS: All schools need them, but they are rare. Extra teachers are the least-expensive answer to the savage problem of overcrowded classrooms. They can circulate from room to room, releasing the regular teachers to give special attention to fast and slower learners or to visit other schools using experimental methods. The best learning and teaching situation is a classroom with no more than 25 pupils.
THE PRINCIPAL: He runs the school to suit himself, with little outside influence. Find out about him. If he’s a martinet, he’ll cause good teachers to leave, rigid ones to flourish and the entire student body to detest school. If he’s stimulating and relaxed, he’ll attract and liberate creative teachers.
TRAINING TO READ: This is the whole basis of your child’s education and can’t be overstressed. Is your child being encouraged at school to enjoy books, practise conversation, express ideas, develop vocabulary, and. if he is small. listen to stories? (And. for that matter, at home?) Remedial kindergartens and even nursery schools are essential wherever a home situation cannot provide these activities.
FAILURES: When a school “fails” a child at the primary level, the school is at fault and should be overhauled. Psychologists say failing a child causes lasting damage; educators are realizing that it is ineffective and unnecessary.
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Which leads to the Nearly Immutable Truth About Schools: The less welcome the parent is to visit and ask questions, the less interested the school is in children. All computations based on the Nearly Immutable Truth are sound, and good for full marks on the final exam, including the assumption that a really closed school is dispensing a really rotten education, and the converse -—that a school with an open-door policy probably has something of which to be proud.
For example, there is Gracefield Avenue Public School in North York. Ont., one of the best schools anywhere Children at Gracefield are enthralled by a dazzling kaleidoscope of an education and their parents arc received gladly in the working classrooms. The principal, Gordon MacGilchrist. a calm intellectual, had the desk removed from his office and easy chairs and small tables substituted. Lie regards relaxed conversation with parents, teachers and children as his most important function; the paperwork gets done at night, at home.
Welcome — and surprises
Duke of York, another pathfinder school, is in a Toronto neighborhood where elderly losers lean cxhaustcdly against store fronts and beefy women with stitches under their shiners shop for stale bread. Duke of York also urges parents to enter freely. The adults came warily at first, having no warm recollections of their own school days to encourage them, but they I ou ml teachers who didn’t patronize them, and a blunt, un-phony principal, Douglas Bahner, who chats leisurely over coffee and cigarettes.
Where there is liaison, parents have had some surprises. A major complaint in city schools, for instance, is one that appears to have little to do with education: what to do with the human debris of an economic situation that requires mothers to work. Some schools are aware that parents in their area are gone from seventhirty in the morning to six at night.
I he children turn up early at the school, loiter around afterward. Sybil Shack, an indomitable and respected principal in Winnipeg, recently found a bare-legged, ragged little girl huddled against the doorway at eight in the morning; the temperature was 18 below.
The schools aren't required to take the children in at that hour but most of them do. and a few let them play lor an hour after school and then admit them to quiet classrooms to do their homework. It’s humane rescue work, but exhausting and unfair to teachers. They wish devoutly that the community would help out. and maybe throw in hot lunches as well. Lunch can be a weird meal when a child gets his own. One Toronto teacher asked the principal's help with a small Italian hoy who regularly fell asleep after lunch. “I know this is silly, since he’s only 10,” she said, "but I think he’s drunk.” He was, too. He had been dining every noon on a bottle of wine, which he heated with a cup of sugar, in a saucepan, and soaked up with a half loaf of bread.
Teachers also wish for parental help with the nonteaching chores that waste their time, skills and patience, such as collecting money for insurance, helping small ones with snowsuits, patrolling the cafeteria. “Teachers sometimes lose half a morning on matters unrelated to education,” complains one Toronto principal, James Harvey. “It’s a shame, when children need the teachers’ full attention. Parents should know about these things.”
Parents in touch with progressive teachers, however, have all they can manage just getting accustomed to the education revolution. They are learning, for instance, about marks, those traditional verities, and trying to accept the fact that educators count marks as useless. A mark of 68, it appears, can mean anything the teacher wants it to; marks of 38 and 88 are equally meaningless. A test conducted in Quebec recently by the Director General of Programs and Examinations, Jean-Marie Joly. found that when 100 people marked the same chemistry examination, the marks fluctuated from 30 to 80 percent.
The outcome of IQ tests, by which many schools define underand overachievers, is equally suspect. IQ tests, given at different times to the same child, will vary whimsically depending on such subtle factors as mood, fatigue and familiarity with the style of the question. Further, IQ bears little relationship to creativity, which is coming to be more prized than smartness.
“What we aim at here is to get the parents off these kids’ backs,” comments a sympathetic Regina principal, Hervey Sykes. “When a child brings home a D on his report card, it’s a crisis. Immediately, a prayer meeting is called, the TV goes off, allowances arc cut, homework is stepped up. No wonder high-school kids contemplate suicide.”
The concept of homework, in fact, is also undergoing change. Educators now think it should consist of research and special projects, rather than mechanical exercises, and should not be a grind. They advise no homework below grade four, an hour a night at most in grades seven and eight, two hours in high school.
Teachers deplore those well-intentioned. worried parents who drill their children at home, usually transferring panic as well as a conglomeration of obsolete and wrong techniques in the process. Unless the teacher has prescribed what should be done, the child is better left on his own. “If you force a child to read,” warns Sykes, “you'll make him a reluctant reader — and doom him.”
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Is Home and School “a sleeping giant” or a dead one?
Most teachers stress that the child who has failed is most in need of his parents’ support. "Not many parents are ready to give it." says a Toronto teacher. Margaret Hincks. “There seems to be so much resentment that the child has disgraced his family. And the child is suffering so.”
On the other hand, teachers wish parents would be matter-of-fact about good report cards, instead of the common practice of passing out rewards. “Some children get a dollar for every A,’’ mourns an experienced Vancouver teacher. Isobel Cull. “It distorts what education is all about, makes it material rather than growth for its own sake.”
For their part, parents hope that the tenuous new communication with teachers will be two-way, that teachers will turf out the misfits and madmen in their midst, be bolder in informing parents of their difficulties, and even “categorize” good and poor principals in teachers’ magazines. A group of teachers, meeting in December at McMaster University in Hamilton. was asked what would happen if they told parents they had too many children in their classrooms to teach properly and needed help. They chorused promptly, “We'd be fired.” Except in a few vital communities, membership in a Parent-Teacher or Home and School Association has little bearing on anything that happens in a classroom. As Dr. Robin Pedley. a British education reformer, w'rote in The Comprehensive School, “Parents associations, like football-supporters’ clubs, often accept as their aim ‘assistance without interference.’ ”
The Home and School Association in Canada sometimes refers to itself
as "a sleeping giant.” which seems to its detractors to be an overstatement, since the giant has no pulse. It has been suggested in vain that parents’ organizations could influence education best by selecting a slate of the most zealous and informed candidates in school-board elections, or by operating a workshop or travel project to acquaint newly elected trustees w'ith trends in modern education. "Otherwise,” groans one principal, "it’s like being in a ball game with the understanding that you’ll never have to touch the ball."
J. Harley Robertson, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. notes, “Education has not changed appreciably in 50 years. Experiment and research are stopped cold by lack of funds. School buildings arc still rectangular boxes. We must prepare each child for the future by using the materials ol the past. Wherein lies the blame? The responsibility rests directly upon the people,
and through them their elected representatives ...”
Across the country educators were asked, “What would you do if your child were being destroyed by school?” Some said bitterly that it already had happened and they had been helpless. One said, after some thought. “Burn dowm the school.” A few said, “Run
for board of education — it’s the only way.” But most said, without much conviction. “Complain. complain, complain. Start with the teacher, that’s only fair, and then complain all the way up to the minister of education.” Meanwhile, the teachers have started to close the gap between schools and parents. Now. they say.
it is the parents’ turn. In London, Ont., a school trustee is ready. He was elected, in part, because he promised to turn his home telephone into an "education hot line” and handle all grievances. It’s a beginning, and a brave one.
In the Muy issue of Maclean’s, June Callwood will explore what is perhaps the most vital issue in Canadian education today: the teacher problem.