Our Schools/Our Selves: Summer 2001

Ontario Students as a Means to the Government's Ends
July 1, 2001

july 2001In high-risk sites like Ontario, traditional forms of liberal education are being replaced by policies mandating teaching and learning activities that are aimed at serving the utilitarian needs of a corporate and globalised marketplace. In effect, educational policy making in the province of Ontario is increasingly biassed towards preparing students to meet the needs of employers and business. Using 'what's good for business' as its benchmark of human value, the government is routinely treating the province's student body unethically: It is using them as a means to its own ideological ends. This article is a case study of Ontario's advance along this course. It ends with some curriculum policy recommendations for softening the worst effects of this trend, and eventually reversing them.

Liberal ideas of education had their origins in the formal preparation for society that leisured young gentlemen received in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When compulsory education was extended to the masses in the nineteenth century, school systems looked to the formal education already received by the leisured classes for suitable curriculum models. So in its original form, a liberal education was not connected with any particular life destination or with preparation for work of any definite kind. Instead, its graduates were shaped by rich contacts with the classics, with the other humanities, and with the natural sciences, so they could take their proper place as 'agreeable' people in polite society. To give some structure to a liberal curriculum, certain 'forms of knowledge and experience' were identified by theorists in the mid-twentieth century. The version from the British philosopher Paul Hirst was probably the one most widely cited. It covered approximately the physical sciences, logic and mathematics, the human sciences, ethics, aesthetics, religion, and philosophy.

Formal liberal education, encompassing forms of knowledge like these, has almost run its historical course. It is being replaced, in high-risk sites like Ontario, by policies mandating teaching and learning activities biassed towards serving the utilitarian needs of a corporate and globalised marketplace. Preparation for the short-term needs of employers is rapidly replacing the conventional liberal preparation of initiating students into worthwhile forms of life.

In effect, educational policy making in the province is increasingly biassed towards preparing students to meet the needs of employers and business. Using 'what's good for business' as its benchmark of human value, the Ontario government is routinely treating the province's student body unethically: It is not respecting them as persons because it is using them as a means to its own ideological ends.

The Prejudices of Common Sense Liberal education in its most developed form asked students to question complex opinions and ideas: to be constructively skeptical of things presented as though they were 'common sense'. Indeed, this critical aim was at the very heart of a liberal education and there is clear wisdom in it, because common sense is filled with error of every conceivable kind. A major reason we have universities, research institutes, and schools is to get rid of all that error from our common sense judgments about the world.

Yet prejudiced views tend to persist even when there is overwhelming evidence that they are wrong; and even when disclosing the views affects the reputation of the possessor. One of the commonest, common sense biases that people hold is 'prejudice against the other'. Racism begins with stereotypes, and then it develops in a most common sense way. Once people acquire racist views, it is very difficult for them to change them, despite their own willingness and despite other pressures to change. To get some insight into the impact of racism on school students, I looked closely at an Ontario study carried out by George Dei and his colleagues. Their focus was the effect racism has on the readiness of students to 'drop out' of school. Here are some of the racist practices high school students said helped shape a racist school environment:

  • schools with low expectations of certain groups of students
  • schools where teachers are ranked in importance on the basis of the social status or abilities of their students
  • schools where racially offensive remarks are tolerated
  • schools where certain students feel overly visible or targeted for misconduct
  • schools where children are carelessly labelled by race
  • schools that give little encouragement to culturally different children
  • schools where diverse identities are missing from the curriculum
  • schools where no-one cares if certain students go or stay
  • schools that avoid any discussion of race and discrimination
  • schools that promote competition between students for personal gain rather than peer support groups

The impact of structural factors like these on groups of children is well documented in educational research. It shows up everywhere in school success rates, and in dropout figures. For example, in the Toronto Board of Education, aboriginal children are doubly at risk, even when compared with other so-called risk groups at high school level. Nearly half are not accumulating the academic credits needed to graduate in the city of Toronto. And in rural areas that situation is much worse, because dropout rates markedly increase outside cities.

All this happens because the policies and practices of dominant culture schooling have become standardized over time. Everyone sees them now as 'normal': as common sense. Yet they are heavily biased against aboriginal and many other socioculturally different children. So these normalized teaching and learning practices are systemically racist in their effects. Accordingly, to improve education success rates and build better societies, these practices and the policies that mandate them need careful attention to remove the structural biases they contain. And of course, those responsible for making the system work have all the key responsibilities here. Indeed, this seems to be the kind of common sense conclusion that one would expect from an Ontario government elected on a much publicised political blueprint called 'the common sense revolution'.

Yet in 1995, one of the first acts of that government in Ontario was to dismantle the anti-racist unit in the Education Ministry; and quickly bring its reforms to an end. Later too, when discussion papers to inform a new secondary school curriculum were solicited, the same Ministry advised authors of papers not to mention words and phrases like 'anti-racist', 'multicultural', 'equity', 'culture', or anything else that might suggest a school system at all troubled by the systemic racism it contains. The same government has reduced the education budget by one billion dollars per annum, while requiring the deputy minister of education to agree in writing to cut $667 million dollars from her ministry's education budget, as the contractual price of being awarded her job as deputy minister. The government has redistributed these moneys in tax-cuts that go mainly to well-off members of dominant sociocultural groups. All this has been done in the name of 'common sense', and it involves not just policies that ignore systemic racism, but other policies that present the direst possible threat to what remains of a liberal education in Ontario.

This threat became clear in the Throne Speech recited by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario on the first day of the new parliament in 1999. In it she outlined the policy plans of the government, announcing that it wants universities to be more 'career-oriented' in their approach to education and that the government intends to back up its wishes with strong sanctions:

Your government believes that students deserve to graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to get jobs . . . It will start measuring and publishing job-placement results for graduates of all college and university programs.

The government's intention here is a clear one, because all their policies are explicitly shaped and pruned to make them 'good for business', in this case by producing university graduates that business thinks it 'wants'. The government's aim is to make Ontario a powerful competitor in the global marketplace, with little apparent regard for the educational impact their actions might have in Ontario itself. Educational policy is being jerked in response to market-driven forces; and it is government that is doing the jerking, in its new role as a proxy for the market place.

It is important to note that the 'measuring and publishing' mentioned in the above extract from the Ontario Throne Speech, will inevitably affect the kind of curriculum that Ontario universities and colleges feel obliged to provide. This in turn will affect the kind of curriculum offered at compulsory levels of education, because universities and colleges have an influence both direct and indirect on the design of the compulsory curriculum. It needs no deep level of analysis, then, to appreciate that several of Paul Hirst's 'forms of knowledge' are gradually being elbowed out of the curriculum spotlight, and eventually out of the curriculum altogether.

For example, because of changes in the province's school funding formula, specialists in the visual and performing arts are already losing their positions in Ontario schools, along with other transmitters of the liberal heritage like librarians and language teachers. Also, in public pronouncements, the premier speaks disparagingly about the role of the humanities and the social sciences in education, whose scholars he says lack "the skill sets that are needed" in a high-tech economy. Accordingly under his government, liberal arts programs in universities are heavily and disproportionately underfunded, even despite the fact that their graduates are just as likely to secure jobs. Even the media education curriculum for high schools, which for decades made Ontario the media-literacy leader in North America, has been dismantled because, in the words of its founder, it flunks the government's good-for-business test. No doubt it asked students to look too critically at media and political messages they receive.

Finally, in a sinister development, teachers of special needs students are losing their positions. And there has been a cut from $400 million to $185 million in Ontario's Learning Opportunties Grant that supports students not achieving their educational goals because of social and economic conditions. As reported in the press, ill-advised policies like these for special education are trying to fit the children to the funding formula, rather than responding to their real needs.

Nonetheless, if the market place continues to prevail, there is promise of much worse to come for the world of education. In her book What Business Wants from Higher Education, Diana Oblinger insists that academic communities start concentrating on teaching the skills, attitudes, and 'personal attributes' that business needs, especially what she calls the unwritten rules of the corporate culture. She laments the fact that liberal arts faculty often have little contact with business personnel, and professors even say that job preparation is not their concern. She believes that faculty members are often openly hostile to business. In response to this presumed hostility, she warns that academics will face a grim future if they refuse to allow business to dictate the curriculum of higher education. This is because their future increasingly depends on getting a sympathetic ear from governments, which they will lose if they refuse to do what business asks.

Moreover, in Ontario, words like these pose more than an idle threat because 'performance funding' for universities and colleges is to be based in part on how happy the bosses of graduated students are with their new employees. And as Oblinger warns, when conventional universities begin to lose their place, companies will rush in to replace them with 'for-profit' universities that offer little space for the liberal arts, or for any forms of knowledge taught for their own sake. They will do it all quite 'successfully' in narrow business terms, no doubt on the homogeneous 'McDonald's' model of 'one size fits all'.

What Price Human Diversity? A feature of today's world is a trend away from centralization, and toward greater diversity and devolution of control over social institutions. In this new world, which some call postmodernity, more voices are being raised, including voices that once went unheard. And these voices are bringing a surprisingly different range of messages to policy makers and governments. They tell of human values once hidden by dominant ideologies and belief systems. And it must be admitted that these ideologies often included distorting beliefs about the 'timeless merits' of the intellectual heritage that liberal educators once tried to transmit. So, on the face of it, this shift seems a promising development. In principle, it could broaden the language games of a liberal education, extending it to include the world views of those positioned by other cultural, social and gendered experiences. Yet, in response to these new voices now raised at local levels, powerful forces beyond the local are still ignoring the messages being sent.

This is certainly true of education in Ontario, where the Ministry has become more remote and overbearing, rather than less so. Even the welcome trend towards devolving more control to schools has been more apparent than real. It has led to new levels of standardization and injustice, and this has happened even in New Zealand which is the place that New Right politicians point to as a model of devolution worth following. In that country, much of the policy talk about giving schools control over their own decision-making has been smoke and mirrors. Worse, New Zealand's so-called 'economic miracle' masked disruptions to social life that have impacted directly on the country's teaching and learning practices: a 40% increase in poverty; a doubling of youth suicide to the highest levels recorded anywhere in the world; a 40% increase of violence against children; and a trebling of infanticide.

Schools, wherever they are in this new world, are still rather powerless institutions when it comes to effecting change. In the face of intruding discourses from wider social formations, schools are not in a position to do very much at all to change themselves. Much of the problem these days is that education almost everywhere is set firmly within capitalist social relations whose discourses limit the freedom of action that schools need to reform themselves. Seen on so grand a scale, this tight coupling of capitalism with all aspects of social life, is a relatively recent development. The pure, free-market, economic arrangements, so essential to capitalism, were limited in their effects as long as capitalism was kept a little separate from government. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm observes, from the 1930s to the 1970s the intellectual supporters of pure free-market economics were an isolated minority, apart from businessmen, whose perspective on the world always makes it difficult for them to distinguish the best interests of their society from the best interests of their particular firm or industry.

But this has changed completely in recent decades. Even government itself has been captured in many places by free-market views that are much less restrained than in the past. And these views have been quite successful in shallow political terms, sustaining the Thatcher-style governments in Britain from 1979 to 1997, the Reagan and Bush administrations in the United States, and similar adventures in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Moreover, the attractiveness and the facile political success of these policies can be seen from the way that even governments led by parties traditionally more to the left, have followed similar policies in all the above countries.

Accordingly, many present-day politicians, and the intellectuals who advise them, have begun to believe that for governments to succeed, the whole world is best viewed as a business, and best interpreted in business terms. In high-risk sites like Ontario, where this ideology is dominant, citizens are increasingly forced to live their lives within the ideology, whether they want to or not. This is because public policy and the social world itself are becoming saturated by it.

This limited and limiting world view is most starkly evident in Ontario's government itself. Its guiding metaphor seems to be that all human beings inhabit a marketplace where the quality of something is decided according to the price it can fetch, rather than according to any intrinsic and real qualities it might have. This distortion of reality is having a harmful impact on human social relations wherever unbridled capitalism reaches, especially on the bonds that exist between people. These bonds today, regardless of their ancestry or provenance, are valued more often by the standards of economic transactions than by the more lasting ties of culture or community.

Another effect of all this is to project a respect for bland sameness onto the social world, rather than a respect for the actual diversity that the social world contains. Despite appearances to the contrary, capitalism has become one of the most assimilationary cultural forces the world has ever seen. And it is prospering even more under the new freedoms and open message systems that are spreading in today's world. Paradoxically, any diversity in provisions that the new voices are winning, is quickly lost by the pressure towards assimilation that unrestrained capitalism creates. 'One size fits all' is becoming the rule, not the exception.

So while human diversity is being recognized at last, people's diverse identities have little value in the marketplace of that new world. As a result, wherever the values and interests of schools are linked tightly into that marketplace, students and teachers from diverse backgrounds find that their interests are still missing from education. As Susan Ohanian says, "a standardized curriculum gives non-standard students no place to go". And while teachers are trapped in the middle of this, students feel as anonymous and distant from the school's goals as they ever did in the 'liberal education' past. Students feel powerless in the face of this anonymity, made worse by the remoteness of their families and communities from the school. This is because genuine partnerships between diverse communities and schools appear only in a few places. Elsewhere, the world of the school often remains a place of daunting obstacles for any children who are different from other students in some way.

Yet this is but one of the less desirable residues of institutionalised liberal education that are now being reinforced in Ontario education, even as the core beliefs and forms of knowledge of liberal education are losing their place. These peripheral residues of formal, liberal education include the following:

  • its inclination towards intellectual elitism
  • its often eurocentric presentation of the world
  • its tendency to collapse into impermeable disciplinary compartments
  • its spurious separation of school knowledge from real-world knowledge
  • its exclusivist conceptions of academic standards

Despite the voices of change that diverse communities are now bringing, these peripheral residues of liberal education are now reinforced as the by-products of a return to positivist assessment methods and mass testing. The new high school curriculum in Ontario manifests several of the above features, discriminating against those who are different in some way. As a result, the predictions of massive drop-outs are already turning into real dislocations for the children of the poor and the culturally different. Yet in response, the provincial premier dismissed these warnings about an epidemic of school failure by saying "It's absolute nonsense . . . that some people are saying it's too tough. Well, the fact of the matter is the world is tough out there".

In Ontario, positivist assessment methods and mass testing are being used to strike against the very substance of liberal education itself, especially at the more abstract and humanist forms of knowledge and the forms of intellectual accomplishment that were once cherished by liberal educators.

Testing Times for Education On the evidence, governments across the world are saddling school systems with an extravagant array of tests and assessments, so much so that some warn against the arrival of the 'Evaluative State' which will be tied in all respects to a doctrine of competition, measurable results, and efficiency. In several European countries, teachers are being made the scapegoats of evaluations for which they cannot in any justice be held responsible; and their frail status as professionals is also markedly declining. Yet Ontario is well ahead of the play. Its government has announced plans to formally test teachers, against harassing criteria of its own devising. This is despite the fact that such tests have been abandoned wherever they have been tried, because they produce "unforeseen consequences: enormous costs, frenetic preparation and worrying about the test, demoralized teachers and a public unimpressed by the extremely high passing rate".

Like many innovations in Ontario, these new testing regimes are being forced on the system without seriously consulting the interests of the people affected. There is little consultation with parents or teachers - apart from the carefully chosen few who share in the governments ideologies and articulate similar prejudices against teachers - much less with the reluctant young victims of all this prodding and probing. But knowing the demands of their own work, teachers are properly skeptical about the real point of this obsession with testing. Teachers everywhere have a range of opinion on the place of system-wide tests; and much of it is negative. For example, many feel that schools have far more important things to do than collect details about student proficiency for politicians to use against teachers and education systems. Many see careful monitoring of a student's progress by a dedicated teacher as much more useful and accurate than tests designed by remote people unacquainted with the student. Aware of the market-driven forces influencing the Ontario government, many fear that tests imposed from outside schools serve the interests of those who control the test designers, not the interests of the tested. Finally, most believe that external tests distort the real achievements of students; they can mislead about real student weaknesses; and they reinforce negative stereotypes about diverse groups, using narrow criteria that are often irrelevant.

Worsening all these professional doubts is the established fact that system-wide assessment tends to determine the content of the curriculum: The test 'tail' tends to wag the curriculum 'dog'. Because of this 'washback effect', the narrow and often trivial things that tests focus upon, gradually become the very things that schools deliver to their students. But even more worrying - again from Ontario - is the fear that the 'arms-length' authority set up to administer this testing regime, is anything but arms-length from the government and the Ministry itself. There is apprehension that the government and the authority are in bed together. For example, the same person who coordinated the heavily censored secondary school curriculum development exercise in 1997, is co-moderator in 2001 of the mandatory testing and assessment process. Such rigid surveillance over the selection of curriculum knowledge echoes the worst educational features of totalitarian states.

Nor does the testing authority seem isolated from the shadowy, business lobby groups and think-tanks that proliferate in profit-driven environments like the one created by Ontario's government. One of these, the Fraser Institute, published a spurious ranking of the province's high schools in a transparent attempt to bolster new government policies announced in the 2001 Throne Speech. By comparing like with unlike, and using criteria that were neither comprehensive nor balanced, the Institute rated the province's schools as if they were all purveyors of the same brand of widgets. Like other corporate-supported pressure groups, the Fraser Institute is obviously eager to reshape education to suit its own ends. And North America is replete with economic elites who always profit hugely from public education, while contributing remarkably little to it when compared with business elites in the old democracies of continental Europe or Australia.

To serve interests like these, little children in Ontario are now tormented by tests that carry little meaning for them. Despite concerns for their welfare often voiced by teachers and parents, the interests of children are sacrificed to meet an abstract, political goal. In Ontario, testing is inflicted on every school and on all students passing through the target grades, even though the same result could be achieved while disrupting no more than 5-7% of classrooms each year. Costly and disruptive as it is, this policy closely fits the ideology driving the government's testing regime. It is certainly an ideology of control; and the control of schools has been captured by people in and around government who see only a marketable product in education. Moreover, their idea of 'educational product' is a narrow one indeed.

When people talk about the products of education, they often mean little more than the things that tests can measure. They tend to overlook the important learning processes that liberal educational philosophers pointed to as the most essential products of schooling. An incisive study from Australia makes this point quite well. Researchers there compared students entering university from public schools, with others from private schools. In the Australian states there are various external tests that young people have to pass to enter universities.These researchers discovered that the private schools were more successful than the public in preparing students for these university-entry tests. It seems the agencies running private schools were making the most of the washback effect, by teaching to the tests. So a few more of their graduates proportionately were making it into university programs. Once settled into university, however, the students from private schools dropped out of their programs in hugely disproportionate numbers. It seems the private schools were giving students a better grounding in all the superficial products measured by the entry tests, but a much poorer grounding in the processes essential for lasting success in the more searching world of universities.

All this concentration on products that can be easily tested, confuses the point of education. As traditional liberal educators were at pains to point out, most of the important things schools pass on to students cannot be tested. They are simply immeasurable - as is the art of teaching itself.

Resisting Marketplace Utilitarianism So what can be done to resist the worst of these trends, and to spare Ontario students from being misused as a means to the government's ends? I believe that 'critical literacy' and 'critical language awareness' offer some hope of holding education back from its descent into marketplace utilitarianism. Beginning in England, critical language awareness now affects curriculum planning to some extent in Britain, the United States, Australia, and South Africa. Some of the main ideas it tries to get across to students are as follows:

  • people have the power to shape the conventions that underlie discourse, just as much as any other social practices
  • although we tend to accept the way language is, and the way discourses operate, they are changing all the time
  • forms of discourse receive their value according to the positions of their users in systems of power relations
  • struggles over the control of discourse are the main ways in which power is obtained and exercised in modern societies

Critical language awareness is certainly education about language, but it does not stop at the 'how language works' and 'how to use language' stage. It insists on teaching students to think critically about discourses of all kinds; and about the cultural and sociological significance of discourse, including its place in business, science, and the media. It asks students to look critically at the information they receive, regardless of its source or medium; and to recognize that our common sense judgments are usually filled with prejudices and error. It asks students to see the media, and governments too, as collections of individuals who have agendas of their own. So it helps them distinguish between commercial messages, casual communication, and the messages of propagandists. In this way, it is distributing competencies that are in great demand in an age when access to an uncensored Internet, by people of all ages, has become commonplace.

And school itself is now a site where these kinds of critical competencies are in demand. Naomi Klein in her book No Logos outlines how schools have been invaded by corporate special interests. She describes how, in only one decade, corporations have managed to remove the barrier between advertisements and education, helped along by the drive to finance technology purchases which is draining money from programs like music, drama and physical education. As only one of many pipelines of influence, the in-school commercial broadcaster Channel One in the US now has a guaranteed, daily access to 12,000 classrooms, which means an estimated eight million students. Indeed, Channel One is able to charge advertisers "twice as much as regular TV stations, because with mandatory attendance and no channel changing or volume control, it can boast something no other broadcaster can: 'No audience erosion'." Canada's counterpart to Channel One is the Youth News Network which has trialled its programs in Ontario's schools. It was banned from schools by the Toronto District Schools Board. Nevertheless, and increasingly, these activities are taken-for-granted by lay people, under the influence of smooth-talking and influential corporate spokesmen. For example, Klein quotes the president of ZapMe! computer systems, a company that distributes an internet browser 'free' to US schools:

"America's youth is exposed to advertising in many aspects of their lives. We believe students are savvy enough to discern between educational content and marketing materials." Thus it became possible for many parents and teachers to rationalize their failure to protect yet another previously public space by telling themselves that what ads students don't see in class or on campus, they wi