Monday, September 8, 2008

My Letter to Margaret Wente

Since I enjoyed Margaret Wente's last two columns on education so much, my wife suggested I write her a letter. The following is what I sent her:

Dear Ms Wente:

Although I have rarely agreed with your perspectives over the years, as a retired high school teacher I very much appreciate the truths you’ve addressed in your last two columns on education. As well, I respect the fact that you chose not to ‘crank out’ a couple of quick pieces by blaming the usual suspects, teachers themselves.

The theme of your column today reminded me of something that happened around 1990. Although a veteran secondary English teacher by that point, I was relatively new to the school, located in an affluent community. During an early departmental meeting our head reminded everyone to make sure that we evaluated our students’ reading ability within two weeks of the semester. I then asked her, “What do we do with this information, Joanne?” She replied, with a laugh, “I knew you were going to ask that question, Lorne.” That comment was the end of the discussion of the issue.

Over the years I had often wondered about that ‘answer,’ and the conclusion I ultimately drew was that the directive toward early semester reading assessment was my department head’s subtle way of conveying the idea of making ‘accommodations’ without actually saying so. Having retired in 2006, I can assure you that there is no longer any such subtlety or ambiguity in school policy.

What deeply troubles me now is that the combination of political, parental and administrative pressure leaves new teachers little opportunity to develop their professional integrity. The problem is compounded by the fact that those teachers with knowledge and experience of the past who could provide some context for younger colleagues are rapidly disappearing through retirement. As well, I am sorry to say, although I am a supporter of unions and federations, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has, in my view, become simply another political entity. The system now demands unquestioning acceptance of political and administrative fiat, and that is exactly what it will get. Unfortunately, such a result, while politically expedient, is anathema to real education.

One other aspect that you might want to explore is the role that ‘careerism’ plays in public education’s malaise. In the last portion of my career, it was rare to encounter either a principal or a superintendent who didn’t put his or her own career ambitions above the well-being of education. To question in any meaningful way the educational orthodoxy generated either by the local director or the Ministry of Education is, as they say, a career-limiting move. Yet is the latter too cruel a fate to endure, given the broader good that is at stake?

Once again, congratulations on your thoughtful education columns. I am still in fairly regular contact with several of my younger former colleagues, and will be emailing them to recommend the pieces.

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