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The Search for Quality.

Our public school system has earned a lot of criticism. Some think we need more alternatives. Others say those alternatives favour the advantaged and they think we should work to improve public schools for the good of everyone

A special education report in Time Magazine in 1997 outlined what was thought to make a good school. While the article admitted that "there are no stock answers," it pointed out some "universal truths."

"A good school is a community of parents, teachers, and students ... run by someone with vision, passion, and compassion ... (with) teachers who still enjoy the challenge, no matter what their age or experience. A good school prepares its students not just for college entrance tests but also for the world out there."

A lot of people don't think Canadian public schools fit that definition. They are concerned about declining education standards. They quote studies that say 44% of our young people between 16 and 24 are functionally innumerate, and almost 30% are functionally illiterate, and as a result they can't understand a simple newspaper article. They quote the Economic Council of Canada which found, in 1992, that 30% of our young people do not complete high school, and those who do, don't perform well compared to those in most other developed countries, particularly in mathematics and science. Taxpayers complain that they're not getting their money's worth; that being among the world's top spenders per capita on pre-university education, we don't have one of the best education systems. In 1993, for example, public spending on education in Canada was 6.9% of Gross Domestic Product, the third highest behind Norway and Sweden among 18 industrialized countries, where education spending averaged 5.8% of GDP. Canada is also the highest spender on post-secondary education. But, on domestic standardized tests, nearly two-thirds of 13-year-olds and more than a third of 16-year-olds had mathematics scores at the lowest two levels on a five-level scale. No one scored at the highest level.

Some critics blame educational bureaucracies that stress conformity and process. Others say it's the teachers' unions because they are against performance measurement and reward time (seniority) not talent. Disgruntled parents are looking for alternatives, some of which are within the public system itself. Open boundaries allow students to attend schools that are not within their own residential district. Alternative schools (when you can find them) are specially designed public schools that offer unique programs or unique delivery of programs to meet the needs of a particular group (e.g. drop-outs, French immersion, fine arts focus).

Charter schools go so far as to give parents and community leaders the responsibility of running public schools. The schools are financed by the provincial government but give parents control of the educational program. They are run under a contract with a local school board or the provincial Education Department and offer alternative programs for the children. They have to teach the mandated curriculum, but they have their own mission or philosophy. They have the same funding as other schools but they receive that funding directly. It is estimated that only two-thirds of the per-pupil allotment reaches regular schools through the layers of bureaucracy, but charter schools control almost 100% of their funding.

The Fraser Institute published a special report on Charter Schools in 1996: it pointed out that "choice is on the education agenda around the world (with) many nations, including Sweden, Britain, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United States providing more autonomy for schools while holding them accountable for results."

New Zealand, for example, decentralized its public school system in 1989. It turned school management over to individual school councils, abolished district school boards, and provided for open choice of schools. Fraser Forum cites New York City's Central Park East, which started in 1974, as the longest running school choice experiment in the U.S. It was the first of about 50 locally managed alternative schools and small schools-within-schools to follow a central curriculum but offer specialized delivery programs. And, it has developed a record for academic excellence.

In Canada, the amount of choice depends on where you live. According to Fraser Forum, Quebec gave parents the right to select schools in the early 1980s when faced with intense competition from private schools. School boards started to offer special purpose public schools such as international schools, schools for the gifted, and schools for the sciences and arts.

The Edmonton Public School Board, with 200 schools and 80,000 students, is seen as a leader in offering choice. By 1994, about 30% of the city's public elementary students and 52% of its secondary students attended schools that weren't in their neighbourhoods.

But, some in Canada see charter schools as elitist, against the principle of equal opportunity, and the beginning of a two-tiered education system. The Canadian Teachers' Federation says charters would "deplete regular schools of their activist parents," those who work hard to make things better for everyone. And, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation described them as "a treat for the rich and influential."

Others argue that we already have a multi-tiered system: parents who can afford it may choose to send their kids to private schools; even public schools in wealthier residential areas tend to be better, largely because area parents often are well educated professionals who are more influential and fight for higher standards. In short, opponents say that charter schools are private schools that operate with public funds.

Those in favour of charters say they are not the preserve of rich people, but extend opportunities to low and middle income families too. In fact, they say a lot of charter schools are designed for at-risk students.

Fraser Forum cites a four-year study of charter schools in the U.S. which concluded, "they are not turning into elitist academies as some had feared" but actually have a higher proportion (40%) of minority students than regular schools do (31%).

So far, Alberta is the only province with charter schools. The program is in the second year of a three-year experimental phase, and, while it is highly controversial, there are student waiting lists. The 12 charter schools that have been approved have one of three philosophical approaches to teaching and learning. Some have the traditional back-to-basics approach to teaching. Others focus on student-centred, progressive, individualized learning programs. And, some address the educational needs of "at-risk" students (those with learning disabilities, underachievers, drop-outs, for example). But, at this stage, charter schools are still thought to have a marginal role in the public education system in the province.

Still, those who believe in universal quality education say critics of the status quo in education are making the system look much worse than it is. They suggest it's all part of their plan to make way for vouchers whereby governments give parents educational dollars to spend where they choose. And, they think that plan includes establishing charter schools, and getting rid of teachers' federations. Those who support the public system say what's needed is far less dramatic -- more modest improvement and reform within the existing system.


1. Have students list the things they think are wrong with the public school system and how they think it could be improved.

2. The six core ethical values that should be taught to every American child, according to the Aspen Declaration on Character Education (signed by 28 leaders of U.S. youth and education groups) are: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship.

Do you agree with this, and, if so, do you think Canadian schools are making the grade?

3. Research how the public school system has changed in the last 50-pars. If possible, report on what our grandparents had to so about the education our parents received. Outline the controversies and criticisms aimed at schools then and some of the good things that have happened in the meantime.


Canadian Teachers' Federation -


In one year, a Los Angeles charter school saved $1.2 million, which was put into a computer lab, more teachers, and an addition with 14 new classrooms.


By 1994, more than 1.4 million children in the United States -- about 3.5% of the student population -- were in some form of year-round education, four times the number seven years earlier.


In 1992, in Japan, educational authorities announced plans to give school-children one Saturday off a month to go on arranged nature hikes, museum visits, and other "responsible recreation."


In 1994, angry parents in British Columbia were up in arms about an experiment in year-round education. While the province saw it as a solution to serious overcrowding in schools in some districts, parents saw it as an end to lazy summer days; a chance for their kids to recharge. To the schools, it meant increased capacity -- 25% to 50% more -- without the cost of more buildings. But the B.C. Teachers' Federation said cost wasn't the only consideration, that the idea had merit only if there were educational gains. But, one Alberta trustee pointed out that the traditional school calendar was never based on instructional needs but on the agricultural calendar: parents needed the kids to help out on the farm in summer.

But, don't panic. Even if year-round school becomes a reality everywhere, it doesn't mean you won't have any holidays. It just means they're spread out more. For example, in one Alberta school, the group of kids who opted for the year-round schedule started school at the beginning of August but had a three-week holiday in October, three weeks off at Christmas, three weeks in April, and all of July. Others rotate holidays among different groups -- for example, four groups of students might go to school for three blocks of 60 instructional days followed by 20 days off. School capacity is increased 33% because one track is always off. Or, four groups might have four blocks of 45 days on, 15 days off. The schedule may vary according to the extent of overcrowding and specific communities. Chances are students would also have the option of sticking to the traditional schedule too.

Proponents of the year-round schedule say the system would meet financial constraints and improve the quality of education. U.S. year-round schools have reported a drop in absenteeism because students are never far from a break.

But, there's a list of negatives too -- isn't there always? Opponents say operating costs increase in year-round schools because buildings have to be maintained year-round; high school students lose the chance to take on summer jobs; principals and office staff take vacations while schools are still operating; time for upgrading marks, which is traditionally done during the summer, is limited; and it's more difficult to schedule family vacations if children from the same family are on different tracks.


In October 1998, a French high-school protest movement started in two small towns with thousands of youths quitting classes to march for better conditions. Their anger turned violent when two cars were overturned in Paris, a scooter was burned, and car windows were smashed.

The students wanted more teachers and better class equipment, such as computers. Reports estimated that as many as 500,000 high-school students marched in dozens of towns and cities across the country and that French society in general supported them. An opinion poll reported that 88% supported the students' protest.

Given an unemployment rate of 27% for France's under-25-year-olds, the students are concerned about getting the right qualifications for a good job. They say the overcrowded, under-equipped conditions are holding them back. At the time of their protest, half of all classes had over 30 pupils with some topping 40. And, six weeks into the new school year, many classes were still without a teacher.

France's education minister, Claude Allegre, promised to hire more teachers and modernize schools.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Spread of Charter Schools
1989 New Zealand first charters all of its 2,600 schools

1988 Britain Education Reform Act permits self-governing
 public schools

1996 1,116 direct "grant maintained schools" (charters)
 in place

1991 Charter school legislation approved in Minnesota,

1996 More than 280 charter schools in 26 states, with
 charter legislation pending in 15 other states

1995 Alberta becomes the first Canadian province to
 adopt charter legislation

1996 Eight charter schools were approved in Alberta
 (12 by 1998)

 Ontario's Minister of Education announces his
 government will consider charter proposals
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; educational standards in Canada
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Previous Article:Social Engineering.
Next Article:Public Challenge.

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