Freda Pryce, a mother of three with four stepchildren, wrote to the Vancouver newspapers in February, 1974, criticizing the educational standards in local schools. She says she had no idea that she would launch a reform movement that would eventually affect public schools across Canada.
By the time Pryce and her husband, a physicist, had moved to Vancouver from Los Angeles in 1968, only their last child was still young enough to enter the public school system. Still, that experience and the testimony of friends and neighbors led her to conclude that the schools had dangerously downplayed discipline
and competitive academic testing. Pryce’s letters urged a return to “structured classes and accepted disciplines.” She demanded to know “why competition should be bad in school when it is good in athletics and the business world.”
She struck a nerve. “Within weeks,” she recalled for Maclean ’s, “we had our meetings in our basement and formed the Genuine Education Movement [GEM].” Within four years GEM had become the dominant voice on Vancouver’s board of education. In Ontario and the West, where most curriculum experiments occurred, parents, university and even business leaders became increasingly concerned at the liberal trend as well. Many of them said that high schools were offering such courses as golf and needlework instead of grounding students in the fundamentals of English grammar and mathematics. At a time when school taxes were increasing and student enrolment was decreasing, voters began to complain to their trustees that they were not getting good value from the public system. As a result, education ministers in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have tightened up curricula and upgraded graduation requirements.
But GEM’S back-to-the-basics program is now itself the object of controversy. Teachers say that they are restricted by the new, precise course outlines, and some parents say they are concerned that the return of competitive tests may be putting pressure on their children. And politicians are now charging that overzealous emphasis on academic subjects has caused school systems to abandon their less academically oriented students.
Vancouver was one of the first cities to experiment with conservative reforms. By the late 1970s, GEM had acquired two influential supporters in Pat McGeer, then British Columbia’s minister of education, and Jack Webster, Vancouver’s open-line radio broadcaster. Webster urged his listeners to demand a return to stricter scholastic requirements. Then in 1976 McGeer’s ministry began to implement many of GEM’S principles. By 1981 all schools were again working with a greater emphasis on a core curriculum and a standard list defining which texts could be used in schools. The result, said Wes Knapp, assistant director of professional development for the 28,000-member B.C. Teachers’ Federation, is that “back-tothe-basics is no longer a movement here. It’s part of the structure.”
So far in British Columbia, the reforms have received a mixed reception. One group that is pleased is the province’s universities. In 1980 the University of British Columbia instituted a compulsory English composition test as a
prerequisite for graduation because professors found that too many new students could not write coherent essays. At that time, half of the first-year students failed to pass the test. But this year only 30 per cent failed. “I think the high schools are doing a better job of preparing students for university,” said Lee Whitehead, who is responsible for administering first-year English courses at the university. Still, many high school students are highly critical of the program.
In April, Marisa Paterson, an 18-yearold Grade 12 student at Langley Secondary School, told a teachers’ convention in Vancouver, “An increasingly competitive atmosphere is driving students into the ground.” She added that the emphasis on marks means that students are concentrating on memorization instead of learning.
Teachers, too, express some misgivings and some of them say that their effectiveness as teachers has been eroded. Said Allan Garneau, a Vancouver elementary school principal: “Teachers who are really professional now feel frustrated because they are limited to a narrow choice of texts that they feel may not be the best for a particular class.” He added: “Books should be seen as tools, not complete programs. But the reverse is becoming the norm.”
Alberta was another province to tighten its curriculum in response to public complaints. One catalyst was a 1980 survey which revealed that a third of the province’s Grade 12 students did not know the name of Canada’s first prime minister and a majority did not know the date of Confederation. In 1981 Education Minister David King announced a program to test the abilities of teachers and students and to evaluate individual schools. The ministry also increased Canadian content in social studies from 30 to 60 per cent, and in 1983 it brought back standardized provincewide exams.
Ontario’s conservative reforms— known as the Ontario Schools: Senior and Intermediate Divisions program, or OSIS—have been in effect for only a year. OSIS increased the number of compulsory high school courses from nine to 16; it raised the requirements for a full high school graduation diploma from 27 credits to 30 and it brought back formal behavior codes for students. Shortly after, a provincewide study coauthored by Sean Conway, now Liberal education minister, found a marked decline in enrolment in high school technology courses—a 32-per-cent drop between 1983 and 1985, according to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. (OSSTF). Conway’s report blamed that decline on the renewed emphasis on “academic, ivory-tower educational values” which he said are less relevant to the 80
per cent of students who go directly into the work force after leaving high school.
Malcolm Buchanan, past president of the OSSTF has also been a critic of OSIS. He has expressed concerns that raising the number of compulsory credits could drive less academically proficient students to drop out earlier than they would have otherwise done. Still, the program has had one measurable result that is approved by most educators. Compulsory enrolment in French and arts courses has raised the participation rate by as much as 40 per cent.
Many educators say that the concerns
raised by parents such as Freda Pryce a decade ago were probably exaggerated. Carl Bognar, an educational psychologist with the Educational Research Institute of British Columbia, declared: “The whole issue of declining overall standards in education is a red herring. My reading of the research has shown no decline in academic achievements over the past 50 years.” Added Bognar: “The point is that not everything that is important about education can be measured.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.