Chapter One: Making Sense of Public Schooling

1.1 Prologue

The Staff Room, 8:15 a.m. Linda Chartrand arrived at school as usual. Getting her own children ready for school and to the neighbour’s house for preschool care was always a rush, but she needed at least half an hour before the students arrived to review her plans for the day, to make sure that she had everything ready, to converse with colleagues, and to check on which resource people might be in school that day.

As she entered the school office, Pat, the administrative assistant, called to her. “Don’t forget that your class will be going to the auditorium at 3:00 p.m. to practice for the school concert. And could you make sure that all the money is in for the book orders? Oh, and Mrs. Koslowski wants to ask if she could send the kids back 10 minutes early from Phys. Ed. so she can make a meeting with the divisional consultant. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” Linda replied. As an experienced teacher she knew that there would be last-minute changes in her schedule. She would have to reorganize her teaching to make use of the half hour between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m. As she was pondering how she would do this, the resource teacher, Eric Sigurdson, asked if he could come into her class to work with three of her students on their reading assessments for an extra half hour that morning. “The parents I was going to meet with had to cancel, so I’d like to give your kids the time.” Again, Linda agreed to the change.

Linda pulled out of her mailbox an agenda for an upcoming professional development day. At the first staff meeting of the year, the principal had asked the staff to spend the year reviewing the school’s mission statement and reaffirming their collective vision and goals for the school in light of the district’s goals and priorities. This was to be the focus of the day’s meetings.

Linda had been through a comparable process in her previous school and remembered the similar reactions amongst the two staffs. Many teachers wondered about how a mission statement would matter to their work.  Some were surprised that the school had a mission statement, because they’d not seen it even after working there for several years. A few wondered why it would take a year to do this. Surely, they argued, a small subcommittee could draft something fairly easily, allowing time for the rest of the staff to focus on some of the pressing issues that needed to be dealt with, like a new conflict-resolution program for the children and the new assessment initiatives on which the grade 6 teachers were working.

But the discussion that had followed had been a good one, and by the end of the meeting, most of the staff had been supportive of the project. The principal had emphasized that she wasn’t interested in simply producing a public-relations document full of current jargon. She wanted the staff to talk through their different views of the school’s goals and priorities, and to come up with a statement of purpose that the staff as a whole would feel was their own. The statement would relate to daily school practices as well as set a direction for future initiatives. Some teachers began talking about their dreams for—and frustrations with—the school, and how they thought it had changed over the years. Despite the differences in the concerns and ideas of the teachers, when the meeting had ended, there had been an air of excitement about the project, which had carried over into the ensuing weeks.

Now, as the bell rang for the first class of the day, Linda was still thinking about the process of developing a mission statement that would actually capture what the school was all about. She thought of the mixed group of students she had in her class. Though each child had unique talents, she was always being reminded of how different they were from one another. Their reading levels ranged from grades 2 to 8.  The two new children who had just immigrated to Canada were starting to learn English and couldn’t yet speak very much to the other kids although she had been trying to engage them socially with the group. The room had been reorganized to ensure Rose’s wheelchair could access any place in the room. But Tommy still had occasional severe outbursts of rage that were hard on everyone in the room, although Tommy had made significant progress since the year began. She often asked herself how well she was engaging all students in learning.

Yes, she thought, it was going to be a good exercise to step back a bit from the everyday demands of the classroom and to think through the school’s priorities and the balance it could establish among so many demands and expectations. What were the goals of the school?



The purpose of this book is to help readers understand the different ways in which we organize Kindergarten to Grade 12 education in schools under provincial jurisdiction in Canada.  This chapter sets the stage by discussing some important underlying aspects of provincial schooling in Canada. We begin with an analysis of contemporary school systems to ask why things are as they are and how they might be different. We then turn to a discussion of the purposes of education and the goals of schools, followed by a discussion of the main features of public schooling and some central tensions and dilemmas that are embodied in the organization of Canadian schooling. Taken together, this chapter provides an important background to the issues raised in later chapters.


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