I would doubt very much that there are many teachers who believe we can solve the problems of society, yet that is exactly what society expects us to do. Not only are we supposed to educate, we are also supposed to adjudicate, intervene, and remedy problems arising from behaviour, socio-economic differences, indifferent or abusive families, etc. ad nauseam. The problem is that the policy makers, our education masters, have never had the political will to force people to face reality as to our limited ability to bring about heaven on earth. In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson has written an insightful article about this that contains much truth. I am reprinting it below.
Memo to Toronto school board: Are you nuts?
February 2, 2008
TORONTO -- Public schools are supposed to be places for teaching and learning, but society often hands them other burdens for which they are poorly equipped.
Society dumps social problems on schools, and expects schools to solve them. Society defines certain social objectives, usually quite loosely, and expects schools to meet them.
Teachers attend teachers' college to learn the subject areas they will teach, and how they will teach it. We give them accreditation as people who can instruct young people in whatever the curriculum requires, not as social workers, psychologists or policy analysts.
Once in school, however, teachers sometimes find too many students aren't ready to learn, for reasons far beyond the teachers' control. Kids are hungry, angry, addicted to television or video games, beset by learning disabilities, socially ill-fitted, experiencing growing pains, violent, whatever. Schools are expected to cope.
Then teachers are told, by parents or education bureaucrats or whomever, that kids must be made more aware - in the classroom and the corridors - of environmentalism, racism, homophobia, poverty, globalization, colonialism, class, voluntarism, pluralism, militarism, capitalism, socialism, and just about every other cause of the moment.
To these pressures have often been added new theories of education. In the 1970s, child-centred education was all the rage. That theory lasted for about two decades, and still exists in beleaguered redoubts. The results were so poor that first parents, and then governments, rose up to bring back some of the educational core that had been supplanted in the child-centred era - reports cards that could be understood, educational testing, more mandatory subjects.
Public schools, then, have been society's playground for fixing social problems, fighting ideological struggles, and testing the latest educational theories. They so remain.
It is inevitable that as "public" institutions, schools will be such playgrounds, because governments, bureaucrats, parents, unions and interest groups try to mould these institutions to their tastes.
Faced with all these cross-cutting pressures, public schools| have struggled to keep focused on two missions. First, schools are there for teaching and learning basic material to help students master material that will help them understand their world and prepare for future endeavours. Second, schools are there to assist social solidarity, to be one of the places where everyone comes together, rubs shoulders, deals with differences and, one hopes, becomes a better citizen for understanding different points of view.
Last fall, this second objective was put to the test in the Ontario election when the Conservative Party proposed to extend, beyond the Catholic system, public funds for religiously based schools.
You can argue the Conservatives made their case poorly. You can insist that perhaps the Liberal government deformed the Conservatives' arguments. But the issue was joined, debate ensued, and the public resoundingly said: No.
Ontarians did not favour the Conservatives' arguments because most voters instinctively or explicitly believed that in an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic society, schools should be one of those places for community, or what has become known as "inclusiveness." Community in this sense does not mean conformity, but rather a sense of working through diversity to that tricky but valuable balance between respect for difference and commonly accepted beliefs/values/objectives.
Given the provincial election results, it is hard to fathom how the Toronto District School Board could be sanctioning "Afrocentric schools" that, although theoretically open to all, are clearly designed for black students only, or almost only. How could it be that having rejected an extension of religiously based schools just a few months ago, the province's largest city will now countenance the creation of racially based ones?
Of course, the board was pressured, as boards often are, by interest groups with a cause - in this case, the theory that inadequate educational achievement can be improved by changing the curriculum. That poor achievement - a 40 per cent dropout rate by black students - is supposed to be lowered if the curriculum is more Afrocentric, which will be quite a trick in mathematics, physics, biology, foreign languages, basic civics, and even the broad sweep of world and Canadian history.
The theory is largely unsound. The much more frequent explanations for poor student achievement, for blacks or any other group, have much less to do with curriculum than factors over which schools have little control: dysfunctional families, troubled neighbourhoods, few role models (absent fathers), poverty, gangs or, in a few immigrant communities, attitudes toward education (especially for females) that are not easily reconciled with mainstream Canadian ones.
All the discourse about inclusiveness, that usually forms a staple of trendy, leftish discourse, has been discarded by the Toronto board in favour of its opposite: membership based overwhelmingly on one characteristic of the human and educational experience - race. As such, it is at profound variance with an important goal of a "public" school system, and should therefore be rejected,
Just as it was in the recent provincial election.