Chapter One: Making Sense of Public Schooling

1.5 Tensions and Dilemmas in Canadian Public Schooling

One way to think of public schools is in terms of a series of characterizing attributes or elements. For example:

  1. Public accessibility. All persons of school age should have a right to free access to schooling.
  2. Equal opportunity. All children should receive equal opportunity to benefit from schooling, regardless of factors such as their culture, gender, sexual identity, ability, and so on.
  3. Public funding. The costs of schooling should be borne by government so that the quality of schooling received by a student is not related to the ability of the student or their parents to pay for that schooling.
  4. Public control. Decisions about the nature of public schools are made through public political processes, by persons who are elected at large to carry out this responsibility.
  5. Public accountability. Public schools act in the interests of the public and are answerable to the public for what is taught and for the quality of the experiences provided to students.

Most people would probably agree with these characteristics in principle, but what they might mean in practice is much less evident. In the current Canadian climate, for example, many would argue that equal opportunity has been questioned significantly by Indigenous communities, people of colour and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Inter-sex, Ally, Two-Spirit (LGBTQIA2S+) communities (Callaghan, 2018; Carr-Stewart, 2019; Herbstrith & Busse, 2020; Maynard, 2017; Taylor et al., 2016). Public funding has been considerably reduced nationally in comparison to rising costs, and public control in terms of power and authority of school boards has been significantly eroded. As Canadians have struggled with them in specific situations, a number of ongoing tensions or dilemmas have arisen—areas where trying to recognize one reality leads us away from another that may be equally important. Much of the history of Canadian education can be seen as an effort to find an appropriate but always temporary balance between these competing objectives. Five tensions are particularly important: uniformity and diversity, stability and change, individuality and collectivity, centralization and decentralization, power and equality.

Uniformity and Diversity

The first tension is between the desire to have a common education system for all, and the recognition that students and communities are quite different from one another and may therefore have different educational needs.

In many ways, despite the variety of school systems, present-day schools in Canada are remarkably similar to one another in their internal appearance: classrooms full of desks or tables, generally empty hallways, resource/technology centres, multi-purpose rooms, gyms, administrative offices, and almost always groups of students of about the same age who are engaged in some activity that is directed and supervised by a single adult.

Students everywhere in Canada study quite similar material, which is divided into subjects. They have to learn certain material on which they are tested, and their progress through the system depends largely on how well they do on various assessment measures. Children are judged individually and do the vast bulk of their work as individuals. Though curricular and pedagogical developments advocate for more student engagement in their own learning and assessment, students usually still have very little say in shaping the nature of their education. Innovations like inquiry learning, land-based learning and inter-disciplinary opportunities continually surface, but classrooms still tend to be teacher centered. The school day is about the same length and covers about the same hours of the day almost everywhere.

While these similarities are quite consistent, even to the point of crossing national boundaries, schools are found in diverse settings. Consider the differences in setting, students’ background, and community influences between a school in a very small community in the high Arctic and one in the suburbs of a large city. In the former, people know each other well and are isolated in many ways from other places and people, though teachers may come and go frequently. In the latter, there is much more anonymity, access to services and more diversity in learning/extracurricular options.

It is clear that the conditions of learning and the job of teaching can vary greatly across settings, even though the schools themselves may be structured in quite similar ways. There can be no single right way to organize schools and schooling. Different students and communities may well require different educational approaches. There will be substantial disagreement about how best to organize and conduct schooling to meet these needs. It is also possible to conceive of ways of conducting schooling that are quite different from those in common use. Yet there is surprisingly little debate about many basic aspects of schooling that are shared by all kinds of schools and communities.

Stability and Change

The second tension concerns the degree to which schools should change to meet changing needs or should remain constant to a set of educational ideals and practices. Most of us tend to think of schools as having always been the way they are now. There is much in schools today that is easily recognizable to the student of 50 years ago. But in other respects, schools have changed in significant ways as the society around them has changed. Until the last century, schools were primarily private or church affiliated, and they charged fees that many could not afford. In the mid-nineteenth century a number of countries began to introduce free and universal public education. Historians have different views about why this occurred. Some see the development of schooling as part of societal progress. Others believe that mass schooling was developed in order to ensure that the new factories and industries had an adequate supply of workers who were both skilled and trained in habits of obedience to authority. Residential schools in Canada were formed with the intent of the “aggressive assimilation” of First Nations people to deal with the “Indian problem” in the interests of land and settlement.

Not that long ago, in many areas, the church remained a key provider of education. That shifted with the development of the British North America Act that granted provinces control over public education and the federal government has sole jurisdiction over “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”, which by extension, includes schools on reserve. Most communities in the developing provinces were rural, and each rural community had its own school. As new communities developed, people formed a school board, built a school building (often with their own hands), hired a teacher (who typically taught eight or more grades in a single room), and operated the school. Control was very much in the hands of the local parents, or more particularly the fathers, since most school trustees were men. Teachers, usually unmarried women, were not well trained and were very poorly paid.

Gradually, these conditions have changed in the provincial school system. Power has shifted away from local parents and communities. Small school districts have largely disappeared in Canada, usually as a result of government legislation, and have been replaced by much larger school districts, which are generally run by professional administrators. Manitoba, for example, had more than 2000 school districts in the early 1950s but currently has less than 40. Some provinces no longer have school boards, whereas in others, school boards are responsible for running large and complex organizations that may have thousands of teachers, as well as huge budgets. As of 2021, however, boards in almost all provinces have lost the ability to increase their revenues through local education property taxes. The largest school districts now have more than 100,000 students while others cover many thousands of square kilometres with less than 3000. In this kind of setting, each school trustee may represent thousands of people. Schools are also larger. Thus, schools have changed from being small and local to being large and bureaucratic in their organization, though they may still be administered largely by males, still be staffed predominantly by women, and still give almost no meaningful role in governance to students.

Another important change is that more people are getting more formal education than ever before. At one time, grade 8 was the common finishing point for many people and the mark of someone with a reasonable level of education. Now those with less than grade 9 may be classified as being functionally illiterate (although one might well question the accuracy of such a standard), and high school graduation no longer guarantees a comfortable lifestyle. Formal education and its credentials have become much more important elements in the organization of society.

Finally, the development of the Internet and digital technology has had a tremendous impact on schooling.  Easy access to and storage of information, alternative modes of delivery, and development of social networking continue to transform our ways of working and learning.  Most of these changes, significant as they were, are now taken for granted. We seldom ask ourselves whether they have produced the desired results, or whether they imply that we ought to change the way we conduct formal education. Somehow, the way we have organized schooling continues to persist amidst changing social conditions and technological advances.

Individuality and Collectivity

Schools across Canada have always faced difficulties with trying to individualize their work while fostering the collective interests of all those who are served by the education system. Perhaps the example that most effectively illustrates this concept is the drive to individualize instruction. Teachers struggle daily with trying to meet the needs of the individuals in their classrooms, yet they also know that they are responsible for the collective interests of the group. In their attempts to find a balance, it is sometimes suggested that many “teach to the middle,” thereby underserving the needs of students who are struggling to learn and those who are not challenged enough. In school discipline cases, administrators often struggle with creating equitable consequences for individual students while others demand that policies must be applied with “consistency.”  During the twentieth century, schools were built along factory models to house a larger collective of students and professionals and to provide more opportunities for programs and supports.  However, people can get “lost in the system” as decisions are made in the interests of the majority rather than the particular needs of individuals or under-served groups. Educators can serve most people well most of the time; but it is hard to serve all of the people well all of the time.

Centralization and Decentralization

Canadian school systems have struggled with the right balance between centralization and decentralization. The move towards consolidation and larger school systems has always been argued on the basis of increased efficiency and economies of scale. The extent to which this has actually improved the quality of schools or learning, however, has not been established definitively. Perhaps in response to some of this mass consolidation, the effective schools’ movement of the 1980’s advocated for “site-based management” which in effect was an attempt to decentralize some of authority from centralized systems. As a consequence, schools became organized in large centralized systems, but individual schools were sometimes administered almost as “islands” unto themselves, which could have beneficial or deleterious effects depending on the issues in question. The move to school councils and local school governance in the 1990’s and 2000’s was also an attempt to provide more local decision-making (Chan et al., 2007; Lessard & Brassard, 2009). Today, calls for accountability and market-driven systems have strengthened a move to what is described as “centralized decentralization” within school organization (Blackmore, 2000). Increasingly, decision-making has become concentrated at the centre, while the processes of implementation are decentralized at the local level. Though this may seem like a good balance of power, Wallin et al. (2009) found that such ways of organizing may put tremendous pressures on school principals who find themselves caught between school district and/or provincial directives and local community values and priorities. Though some balance between centralization and decentralization is necessary, the difficulty lies in finding the right mix to foster both system efficiency and responsiveness to local context.

Power and Equality

Schools, like all organizations, are shaped by power relations. Some people have more influence over what happens than do others. Final authority over most aspects of schooling rests with elected officials in the provincial government or the local school board. Within any given school, administrators typically have the most official power. Principals can give instructions to teachers, students, and (sometimes) parents. Teachers have considerable power over students, but not very much over administrators. And students have almost no official power, although they can exercise quite a bit of informal influence when they want to. Where power exists, so does the potential for unfairness and abuse. It is important to ask at all times whether power is being used in the right way and to guard vigilantly against its abuse, no matter who the perpetrators or victims might be.

Much of the history of schooling in Canada has been marked by struggles over power and control from which enduring questions have emerged. How much authority would be held by laypeople (parents and community members) and how much by professionals (teachers, principals, and superintendents)? How much authority would rest at the local level in a community, and how much would rest with provincial governments? An important distinction can be made between representative democracy and participative democracy. The former implies that legitimacy is conferred on a central authority, such as Parliament, by the population and then held accountable to the population through the electoral process. The latter implies that the central requirement is that;

we develop institutions that attempt to make decisions by argumentative discourse as much as is practical and that invoke claims of sovereignty as rarely as possible. The principal aims are three: (a) to assert the merits of the better argument against power; (b) to assert the merits of equality and reciprocity against bureaucratic hierarchy; and (c) to assert the merits of autonomy and solidarity against domination and coercion. (Strike, 1993, p. 266)

Schools also are marked by inequality. Some schools are better staffed and equipped than others. Some teachers get better teaching assignments or more resources for their courses. Some students have more access to technology, optional programs, or extra-curricular activities. Some students get better marks, enjoy school more, and are more often granted school privileges than other students. Again, where there is inequality, there is the potential for abuse. We are not suggesting that everyone should be treated precisely the same at all times; equal treatment is not always the same thing as equitable treatment. Rather, it is important to ask whether the kinds of inequality that exist in schools are justifiable. Is it right (and, if so, why) that some students have more privileges, or can access differential levels of programs and/or supports than others? Such questions are important in analyzing the way in which schools are organized and how that organization affects those who come into their orbit.

Inequalities in schooling are not accidental. One job that schools have been expected to perform is allocating social roles, determining who will go to work for low wages and who will receive professional training. How is it possible to reconcile this purpose with the desire to have every student develop all the skills and competencies we would like them to have? Indeed, some believe that failure is part of the mission of schooling:

Imagine what would happen if . . . the goals that educators and reformers officially seek were actually accomplished. All students would become top performers. All of them would make . . . perfect A records throughout their schooling. Chaos would ensue. Colleges would not have room for all, but would have little ground on which to accept some and reject others. Employers looking for secretaries, retail salespersons, waiters, bus drivers, and factory workers would have jobs unfilled as every student considered such work beneath his or her accomplishment.

As long as education is used to rank young people and sort them into occupational futures that differ substantially in the money, status, power, and intrinsic rewards they can yield, good education, or students’ success at education, must remain a scarce commodity. (Metz, 1990, p. 85)

The fact is that schooling in Canada and in other countries does produce unequal results. Some people do well, go on to higher education, earn higher incomes, and attain greater access to societal rewards, whereas others do not fit in with the school, fail or drop out, or end up in low-paying jobs. Worse still, societal rewards are not distributed only on the basis of talent and meritocracy, though we like to believe that myth. The nature of families, and particularly income levels and occupations, have a great deal of influence on how much education students receive, what kind of job they will have, and how much money they may earn. For example, university students in Canada (and in other countries) are much more likely to come from families with higher education and income levels than are community college students or those who leave school without any postsecondary experience.

This tension between the allocative and educative functions of schooling is another example of the point made earlier in this chapter about the problems schools face in attempting to develop creative, critical individuals while passing down the basic values of the culture. The conflict between these purposes is of enormous importance in understanding what schools do and how they are organized.


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