Chapter One: Making Sense of Public Schooling

1.2 Schooling in a Changing World

Many people may take for granted the organizational aspects of schools, assuming that schools are the way they are for good reasons. But we regard it as very important for everyone involved with education to understand the way in which our schools are organized and operated so that they can ask questions about, and contribute in an informed way to, proposed changes. One approach to developing this understanding is through a description of constitutional, legal, and administrative structures that give direction to administrators, teachers, and students in the daily routines of school life. No one involved in schooling can afford to ignore the power exercised through these structures and processes. As a result, this text gives considerable attention to them and attempts to demonstrate how they affect the daily work of teachers, and how they affect students’ experiences in schools.

However, this approach is not sufficient because Canadian schooling has been changing in important ways. Whereas for the most part, schooling in Canada continues to be regarded as a positive social institution that provides many benefits for individuals and for society, significant demographic, political, economic, and cultural shifts have led to growing questions about the purposes of schools and how well they are currently being met. Expectations on teachers, administrators, students and parents shift constantly.  Changes in policy and practice are frequently announced by governments and school districts and schools are expected to “make them happen.” A variety of interest groups press for changes of one sort or another. Media accounts ask questions about whether our schools are good enough, too costly, well run, and so on.

These questions and issues are connected to changes in Canadian society and Canada’s place in the world. Central to the concept of globalization is the reality that changes in information and communication technologies, and the associated practices of intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and multinational corporations have produced an important shift from an emphasis on national economies to a far more open “global economy” accompanied by “worldwide discourses on human capital, economic development, and multiculturalism” (Spring, 2008, p. 1). Very closely connected to this has been the recent growth of government policies across much of the world, generally referred to as neoliberalism, that support an individualistic rather than a communal vision of society. These policies promote competitive individualism and market competition in all areas of public life, with the role of government substantially reduced. In this new world order of technology, competition, and innovation, education is seen as key to economic prosperity. Indeed, sometimes the only rationale provided for education and schooling is economic success; we are now said to live in a “knowledge society” and compete internationally in a “global knowledge market.” Neoliberal policies tend to support reduced government spending, privatization, centralization of authority with an attendant decentralization of process, increasing surveillance in the forms of accountability measures and technology, and standardization of policy and practice.

Neoliberal ideology has been questioned in relation to issues of sustainability, including ecosystem sustainability, political sustainability, economic sustainability and/or cultural sustainability (Evans & Albo, 2018; Polistina, 2018; Rose & Cachelin, 2018). Some authors suggest that neoliberalism has undermined democratic governance and local control for schools (Danley & Rubin, 2020). Canada is experiencing a growth in diversity in many respects, along with attendant drives to accommodate differences in culture, language, religion, sexuality, and social class (Angelini, 2012).  Across the world, calls for attention to global sustainability and human rights force us to face the dangers of unimpeded economic growth at the expense of our planet and humanity.

These developments have had a substantial impact on Canadian society and Canadian education. Changes in the nature of work and the demands of a skilled labour force have produced increased attention to “soft skills” or “power skills” such as information management, problem solving, and teamwork. We are also seeing a much greater focus on micro-credentialing and international comparisons of student achievement, school outcomes and organizational structures (OECD, 2020) (see Box 1.2.1).

Box 1.2.1
PISA and International Assessment

There are several international assessments of student skills and knowledge now, but the most influential has been the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) operated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD), an organization based in Paris (see PISA is intended to measure the ability of 15-year-olds in key areas of adult life, including reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving.

The results of PISA have had a very substantial influence in many countries, not just in regard to comparative results but because PISA also tries to look at the policies that shape educational outcomes. For example, PISA results show that countries can combine high levels of achievement with low levels of inequality, and that early streaming of students into different pathways has negative effects.

Canadian students have done very well in PISA; Canada has consistently performed higher than most OECD countries in Literacy, Mathematics and Science. In the PISA 2018 results, girls had statistically higher Literacy scores, statistically lower mathematics scores, and higher (but not statistically significant) scores in Science as compared to boys. Socio-economic status explained 7% of the variance in reading scores, as compared to the average of other OECD countries where 12% of the variance in reading scores could be explained by socio-economic status. Interestingly, however media coverage of PISA results often focuses on deficiencies in Canadian education, and inter-provincial comparisons, rather than our consistent strong performance. This is yet another way that the media can shape perceptions of educational quality and/or the value of public education.

For some, the critical function of schools is to prepare students for adult work. But for others, this is seen as a dangerous and misplaced narrowing of the educative and democratic purposes of schools (Danley & Rubin, 2020). The political drive for reduced government and for market competition in education has led to support for business models of management and operation in public education. It has also led to increased parental choice in the selection of the schools their children attend as well as increased accountability for schools and teachers for the educational outcomes of students.

Educators may well feel overwhelmed by all the pressures they face as a result of social, demographic and economic change. Yet in this climate of change, critical re-examination of school organization is essential, and it is vital that teachers provide leadership in this process. Rather than viewing current practice as somehow natural or obvious, we want to examine why things are the way they are, how they came to be this way, who benefits most from them, and the possibilities of their being otherwise. It is equally important that proposals for change are carefully examined and critiqued for their future intended or non-intended consequences for children, schools, and communities.

We believe that one must approach school organization from a moral and educational perspective as well as from a technical perspective. In other words, questions of “how to” cannot be separated from questions of “why.” Nor is it possible to detach the discussion of school organization from a broader discussion of the purposes of schooling and its place in Canadian society.

In this text we also try to recognize the real world in which students, teachers, and administrators live and work on a daily basis. The official image is often a pale reflection of the complexity of real classrooms and schools. It is important to pay attention to the uniquely human nature of schools and to human behaviour with all of its idiosyncrasies, its intertwining of personal and professional lives, its dreams and disappointments, its friendships and hostilities, its egos and ambitions. Furthermore, school organization and administration must be seen as concerning not only those people who occupy positions termed as “administrative” (e.g., policymakers, directors, superintendents, and principals), but everyone who is engaged in, and affected by, the educational process, especially students.


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