Are Canadians getting their $12 billion worth?
Everybody knows at least one horror story: the high-school graduate who can’t read anything more complicated than a snack-bar menu, the PhD with a $50,000-plus education who subsists on unemployment insurance, the months and even years devoted to what amounts to little more than supervised play in some elementary schools, the grade 10 student who has never learned the multiplication tables. Yes, everyone knows someone who’s angry at Canada’s school system. Or its teachers. Or its government masters. Critics abound. Newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets thrive on the horror stories. Bitching about education has become a staple of cocktailand dinner-party conversation. Teachers’ pay, their holidays, their militancy are common gripes. So are education taxes and apparently declining standards. Student illiteracy, which is “discovered” almost daily by someone or other with the public’s ear, has prompted widespread demands that the schools stop messing around with experimental programs and get back to the Three Rs, so at least Johnny will be able to read the want ads and count his change when he goes out into the cruel world. Not surprisingly, education authorities who have devoted their careers to broadening school curricula and eliminating what they call the elitist system of the past, the so-called “bad old days,” reject as simplistic and ill-founded these cries for the clock to be turned back. But the clamor persists, seems likely to grow louder, and has already forced some changes.
While there is by no means unanimity on what is wrong with Canadian education—there are almost as many theories as there are parents, teachers and students— there is certainly a developing consensus that something is wrong, that the nation is not getting its $12-billion-a-year worth, that the six million young Canadians who enter or return to school this month are undertaking a haphazard journey to an uncertain destination. Professors denounce degrees and diplomas as worthless pieces of paper. Employers complain that young persons entering the tight job market are woefully under-prepared. Nearly half of Canada’s universities grudgingly offer freshmen remedial training in English and mathematics, claiming that the high schools simply haven’t done the job. Students and teachers alike complain of frustration in the classroom, of insufficient guidance from above.
But is the system really flunking? Is it really the costly nightmare its critics describe? No, say the authorities who created it. “Our problem,” says Ontario Education Minister Tom Wells, a trifle wistfully, “is
The criticism of the pre-Sixties system was that it was too hard and too rigid
that we don’t produce a perfect product.” Parents and taxpayers look at the staggering cost of Canadian education and expect the system to chum out Einsteins by the classful. Canadians are the world’s biggest spenders on education, in terms of national wealth. Although spending has declined slightly in percentage terms—from 8.3% of Canada’s gross national product in 1969-70 to an estimated 7.5% this year, as
the number of students has dipped and the nation has grown steadily richer—this country takes a back seat to no other in terms of its generosity toward education. Moreover, a higher percentage of the Canadian population attends school than that of any other country (according to 1970 United Nations figures, 30.9% of Canadians were enrolled full-time, compared with 30.6% of Americans, 25.8% of Russians, 19.8% of the British). The quantitative leap forward by Canada in the past 15 years has profoundly impressed foreign experts, including a five-member delegation from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which recently published an ambitious report on education policy in Canada. The OECD experts referred to the development of our system as “an enormous organizational, administrative and staffing achievement” and went on to talk about it being “a second great Canadian pioneering achievement.” But if Canada has done well quantitatively, there remain doubts about the quality of it all. As the OECD report put it: “The quality of education [in Canada] seems to have become a public issue precisely because of the high costs that have had to be paid to ensure equality of access. Taxpayers everywhere want assurance that what appears to them to be extraordinarily generous levels of school financing are yielding commensurate returns . . . Although a great deal of optimism persists, the educational policy climate has changed fundamentally in the past few years. The reformers who sailed gaily ahead (and who spent money freely) for the past 20 years now find that the wind is coming from a decidedly less favorable direction.”
Of course, attitudes toward education are ever-changing. Those responsible for Canada’s school systems—the politicians and the education planners—struggle to keep up with the public’s expectations but seem doomed to trail the pendulum of opinion. This year, the pendulum is gathering momentum in a swing to the right, while the school systems are still out there on the left. “The latest surge of criticism,” says Ontario’s Tom Wells, “began after parents started to switch back from the permissiveness of the 1960s, when there was a breakdown of discipline in many homes. You could see it in sex, drinking attitudes, all kinds of things. And there was an inevitable decline of discipline in the schools. You know, 25 years ago, if a
teacher slapped or disciplined a kid, the kid would be afraid to go home and talk about it. He’d get another licking. But in the Sixties, parents started suing teachers.” Now, Wells says, parents want their children disciplined but won’t do it themselves. “The schools cannot undertake all the responsibilities abdicated by parents,” he says. “Today parents expect the schools to teach sex education, banking, how to drive a car, manners, everything.”
Robert Stamp, a professor of education at the University of Calgary and the author of About Schools: What Every Canadian Parent Should Know. echoes Wells’s comment about the swing to the right. “There were always concerns about education, and there always will be,” he says. “Back in the 1960s, w hen the leftists were in full cry. the media concern was that the school programs were too hard, too rigid. Now the ideological pendulum is swinging back to the right, with the media picking up rightwing criticism.” He pauses, then adds: “We’ve had an awful lot of verbal diarrhoea about the Three Rs. Obviously, a modern system needs freedom of expression as well as the basics.”
The 1960s were a time of giddy growth in the education industry, as provincial governments responded to a national consensus that, when it came to schooling, more was better. The vanguard of the postwar baby boom was moving through the system and forcing unprecedented expansion of classroom space. The little red schoolhouse disappeared and across the country the huge consolidated schools took over. At the same time, education planners decreed that the whole process had to be opened up, democratized, made available to all. In the past. Canadian students had been ruthlessly weeded out as they progressed through the system; economic pressures as much as academic requirements served to force young people out of the schools and place them in the labor market. But by the mid-1960s, the long postwar economic boom was starting to sputter, just as its accrued benefits began to enrich most Canadians. Jobs for younger persons became scarcer even as their parents became more comfortably fixed, with the result that more students could stay in school longer, could aim at university. In the decade 1961-71, for example, the number of Canadians enrolled full-time in post-secondary education rose from 311,000 to 820,000. While this expansion was underway (since 1960, total Canadian spending on education has increased 800%) new ideas in education methods were coming into vogue. Experimentation was born. Planners sought to broaden the range of classroom topics, to move beyond the traditional curriculum, to foster creativity rather than learning-by-rote. Some provinces went out of the examination business, opting for a more informal arrangement of marking individual progress. High-school students were offered a dazzling array of subjects to choose from.
and elementary pupils were stimulated rather than drilled. New teaching methods, particularly in reading and mathematics. were introduced and that, according to the system’s critics, was when education began to go sour.
Education is an intensely studied field, pondered and pored over by experts and laymen alike. The provinces, for example, have undertaken no fewer than 21 commissions of inquiry into education since the Second World War. all in the hope that someone could chart a course for what be-
In the Sixties, the old rote-learning was out. Creativity was the new ideal
came one of the largest areas of public expenditure. Many of the reports now fall into the “file-and-forget" category, but some of them have had a profound effect on the systems under fire today. Of towering importance to Quebec was the 1961-65 Parent commission, which led to radical changes in Quebec’s educational structure, notably in the area of what are now known as CEGEPS (for Collèges dEnseignment General et Professionel. of which Quebec has built 36). The CEGEPS were designed to act as a bridge between high school and university and to be attended by all
Quebeckers who wanted to continue formal instruction after high school. The OECD experts, in particular, were impressed by the Quebec system. One of them. Dr. Hildegard Hamm-Brveher of West Germany, wrote in a 1975 article that she found Quebec had Canada’s “most extensive, most carefully planned and most interesting educational reform.” But while Quebec was developing its own approaches, the rest of the country was casting about for answers to the two principal challenges of the day: ( 1) equalizing access to education for all young people, and (2) expanding the areas students could explore. Unarguably, the most influential inquiry of the 1960s in English-speaking Canada was the 1965-68 Hall-Dennis commission set up by Ontario. Virtually every province paid attention to the Hall-Dennis report, which is now regarded as an infamous document by some critics, as a bold and innovative master plan by many professionals. Canada, in the eyes of foreign education authorities (including the OECD), is hampered by the fact that it has no national education policy as such. The federal government, of course, is constitutionally barred from the education field, even though it pumps more than $2.5 billion into it every year. One result of this ge fragmented approach (a system for every province) has been overlapping of research; another has been random interprovincial borrowing of ideas and policies. Hall-Dennis was a much-borrowed-from document and. as a result, is a much-criticized one.
The debate over education quality has been gathering strength in the 1970s. Complaints are not restricted to ill-informed or irresponsible groups.The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, for example, undertook a national survey in 1975 to determine whether the school systems were providing adequate training in basic educational skills (i.e. the Three Rs). It concluded they were not. The Ontario Economic Council produced a report this year, deploring what it found to be inadequate standards and calling for a return to province-wide examinations and compulsory teaching of the fundamentals of English and mathematics. The University of British Columbia resolved in April that starting in 1979 it would offer no remedial English instruction and accept no students needing it. Recently. nearly 40% of UBC freshmen were found to be inadequately trained in English when they registered. And one university dean. Laurentian’s Wesley Cragg, went so far as to suggest, in a newspaper article, that some students had grounds for suing their school boards and universities “for malpractice.”(In this, he anticipated a case in California, where a student sued education authorities for malpractice— and won.)
Many parents are, perhaps understandably, up in arms. Sheila Morrison is a former Toronto teacher who became exasperated by what she regarded as disastrous
experimentation with a whole generation of kids. She founded the Parents’ Action League in 1969 to lobby education authorities and she invited other parents to join her. Now she claims to have thousands of supporters and adds that similar movements are emerging across the country. “People call me because they're worried,” says Mrs. Morrison, a tireless campaigner who appears on radio talk shows and television panels to spread her gospel. “Ah, it’s sad. It really is. Kids are ending up with learning disabilities when they no more began with one than I did. Do you know what they do in school now? Well, one little girl I heard about was excited because, after the morning movie, it was her turn to comb out the teacher’s hair. Really. And when the principal was asked if that was the sort of thing a pupil ought to be doing, he replied that the teacher did have nice hair. Now I ask you . . . movies and hairdos. There’s a whole generation who have been shortchanged. They don’t know how to work. They don’t know how to finish anything. We’re so busy teaching them concepts we’ve forgotten how to teach them facts.”
Peter Spark, a member of the legislative action committee of the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations, says the schools must get back to the basic learning skills and measuring progress in a meaningful way. The modern ungraded report cards are totally useless, he says. “Parents are told everything is okay and then, a few years later, wham! they find out their kids can’t read very well, can’t multiply two and two . . . Of course standards have come down. Once everyone got the idea that nobody should be a failure, or regarded as a failure, they were bound to come down.”
A curious feature of the change from the go-go Sixties to the uncertain Seventies has been the role reversal between students and teachers. When the Vietnam protest was at its zenith, the students were the militant radicals. Today, as the students appear ever more sober, their teachers have become radicalized. Indeed, there is evidence that much of the current disaffection with the education system stems from public hostility toward militant teachers. Confrontation bargaining, huge pay demands, the very idea of teachers on a picket line all combine to alter long-held public perceptions about the people who train the nation’s young. The long-suffering schoolmarm with the blue rinse and the heart of gold is virtually an extinct species, and it is clear that many Canadians regret and even resent her passing.
Teachers, of course, are all too aware of their popularity gap, even if they are not apologetic for their collective activities. Teachers’ associations across the country are budgeting hundreds of thousands of dollars this year for public relations campaigns that will seek to explain their concerns about standards, salaries and declining job opportunities in a shrinking school
system. Neil Davis, who just stepped down^ as head of the Ontario Public School Men Teachers’ Federation, notes that teachers “believe in their own bad press and are a little depressed by it.” Ontario’s highschool teachers recently issued a report in which they dismissed the value of diplomas, and added that “teacher morale has sunk to an all-time low. with the disastrous effect that even teachers are now questioning their very purpose and role in the schools.” As Davis sees it, the teachers “know parents are confused about recent
The criticism of the mid-Seventies system is that it isn’t hard or rigid enough
changes in the system. Well, they are just going to have to inform parents of the reasons for the changes.” He adds: “We’ve been lousy communicators, no doubt about it.”
A frequent complaint from parents and businessmen alike is that schools are failing to prepare young people for the workaday world. Education and employment opportunities are inevitably related, and the rule generally is that the better the education the better the job. Certainly, the development of highly trained and well educated workers who will contribute to the
general economic well-being is one rationale for all the billions governments are spending. Nevertheless, provincial education departments are loath to say so. Instead, most of them state the objectives of their systems in rather oblique terms: to develop good citizens, to enable youth to reach its potential, to foster appreciation of culture, etc. But for most students (and parents) the bottom line on education now is more dollars tomorrow. A recent report by the federal manpower department paints a generally gloomy picture of job prospects for young people leaving school. The unemployment rate in 1975, among Canadians below the age of 25, was 2Vi times greater than it was for those over 25. The report brands as inadequate “the help that young people get in school to prepare themselves for labor market entry.” And it projects no early solution to the jobs-foryouth problem, even though the youth population is expected to peak in 1980.
Some modern education theorists are not unduly alarmed about the employment situation. “The last thing in the destiny of Canadians is to get a job,” says Lloyd Dennis. “The first thing is to get to understand each other.” Dennis is a controversial figure in Canadian education who helped write the Hall-Dennis report for Ontario. He rejects complaints that kids today cannot read as well as they used to, and insists that critics are making education a whipping boy for society’s ills. According to Dennis: “Surely the most expensive education system in the world ought to aim at more than simply getting people jobs.” Dennis disagrees with those who say children are not learning to read or write as well as they once did. “We’re teaching English today better than we ever did, and I can prove it,” he says. But, people should understand that Canadians “have moved away from print images. Fathers and mothers no longer read in the home. Television is replacing books for many people.”
Defenders of the new order insist that public concern over eduation is misguided, as well as misinformed. Nevertheless, the clamor appears to be having some effect. As Ontario’s Tom Wells explains: “It was a fad at one time to play down grammar. Now that’s being corrected. Spelling is being brought back. Not that we’re trying to bring back the old system. The old system made it easy to appear that more kids could read and write better. That was because they threw out all the others.” Another and perhaps more hopeful sign that the debate over literacy levels and general quality is having an effect comes from British Columbia. Professor J. L. Wisenthal, chairman of the first-year English program at UBC, reports that students are trying “very hard indeed. There’s been a marked improvement in the past year. Kids know now what’s expected of them and prepare themselves better. All the alarms are having some good effect.”