Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.4 Central Dilemmas in Canadian Education

Several ongoing tensions or dilemmas characterize Canadian education politics.

Centralization versus decentralization has to do with where authority over educational decisions will be located. Will it be at the local level—the school or school district—or will provincial governments take on a greater degree of control? Should curricula be set locally or provincially? Should students be evaluated within the school or through provincial examinations? Should schools be able to hire whomever they want as teachers, or must all teachers meet certain provincial requirements?

Professional authority versus lay authority deals with the amount of control over schooling exercised by teachers and administrators as opposed to parents and community members. Examples of this tension include debates over the degree of freedom teachers should have to control their own subject matter and teaching style, over whether hiring decisions should be made by school boards or by superintendents and principals, over whether parents should have a role in evaluating school programs, and so on.

The tensions between uniformity and diversity concern whether the school system will be standard in its operation across communities, regions, and even provinces, or whether schools will vary across settings because the Canadian population is so diverse. Historically, language and religion have been particularly prominent aspects of the struggle over diversity. Some of the most vociferous debates in Canadian education continue to revolve around the issue of how and to what degree we as a society are prepared to accommodate a diversity of linguistic and religious views. The varying arrangements across Canada in regard to religion and language show how differently these questions have been answered depending on circumstances. And Canadians still face many unresolved issues concerning diversity. Do we provide separate ethnic schools in our cities? Do we teach primary level students whose first language is not English in their mother tongue? Do we produce textbooks and teaching materials in languages such as Italian, Hindi, and Chinese as well as French, English, Inuktitut, and Cree? What does it mean to provide equal opportunities in schools for girls and women in areas such as science and technology? How do we safeguard the rights of minority groups while seeking to maintain essential elements of a common curriculum?

These tensions run through many aspects of educational policymaking and politics, as will be illustrated in the remainder of this chapter.


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