The ultimate public school advantage: Democracy

TheStar.com – news/insight
Published On Fri Apr 08 2011.   By Rick Salutin, Columnist

Is there anything public schools do that no other form of education can?

Only this: Simply by being what they are, they can teach kids about the society they live in. That’s because public schools must let everyone in. What’s unique about public education isn’t the education part, it’s the “public.” Other schools can tell kids about their society but they don’t contain it and show it. At private school, kids can learn about the value of inclusiveness, but they’re surrounded by others like themselves in key ways. In public schools the medium really is the message; the classroom is the curriculum. I don’t mean to wear rose-coloured (or Rosedale-coloured) glasses. Not every public school mirrors our society perfectly. They’re often residentially or socially segregated, so that rich kids go to school mainly with rich kids and poor with poor, etc. Still, others can slip in around the edges: Even in Rosedale there are kids who may rent on the fringes of those leafy streets, but they’re at the same schools as a right.

Does this matter? Parents today tend to focus on schools giving their kids the skills, attitudes or credentials needed to survive in a scary work world. That’s understandable. But there’s no clear difference between public and private schools when it comes to doing this. Nor is there any guarantee it’ll lead to a job in the fickle global marketplace.

Kids have a different agenda. It’s social. It has to do with other kids: getting to know them, learning to deal with them. It seems to me that agenda makes more sense now. In harsh, unpredictable times, a knack for things like community and democracy may be crucial. If so, public schools are uniquely equipped to handle that challenge.

A sense of community has always helped people through dark times. It’s amazing how much economic and other stress they can withstand if they feel bound to others. Neighbourhood schools provide that kind of resource. But there are also forces working to undermine their community-building role.

Take school security. It seems like a no-brainer if there are safety risks. Lock the doors to keep out strangers, drug dealers, etc. Mount security cameras. Hold lockdown drills. But however well-intentioned, these tend to teach paranoia at the expense of the alternative: learning what a community is. If parents and local people can’t come and go freely, you can lose the sense of connection to those living or working around the school. Connection to the community around you provides a different kind of security than you get by fencing off an enclave living in fear. The kids sense it. Those who gain a feel for community will become community-minded adults; those who don’t, won’t. These aren’t easy issues to sort through and good principals tend to agonize over how far to go because they want kids to be safe but also know the value of a sense of community. Bad principals just slather on the security and let community wither.

Or take parents who protest the closing of a local school. They aren’t always acting in narrow self-interest against school boards working within tight budgets. They may also be defending their communities.

I’m not being nostalgic. I know community is harder to find than it once was. That makes it even more important to nurture the sources that remain while working to cultivate new types. I happened to be at Toronto’s George Webster Public School on Remembrance Day. It’s a “model” school in a high needs area. Principal Nancy Steinhauer came from the “independent” sector, i.e., private schools. She says diplomatically that while there, “I always had a problem with the fact that not everyone was welcome.” Steve the head custodian coaches the hockey team, with Bangladeshi, Pakistani, etc. players. He says his own parents were Macedonian immigrants and didn’t know from hockey, but a friend’s mom asked if they could take him to play. It made him a Canadian. Now he’s passing the torch to future generations. Steinhauer finagled ice time and got equipment donated, which should be part of the principals’ course, if it isn’t. They observe Gandhi Day, Dia de la Raza, International Women’s Day, name it. The parenting drop-in centre is open to all, you don’t need to have a kid in the school. For the remembrance assembly, students in hijabs and teachers in saris recited “In Flanders Fields” and sang “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” Thus does a sense of community expand to include national history. A bemedalled vet of the Korean War spoke with brevity and dignity. The kids will build all that, along with hockey, into their notion of Canadian, which is what they’re becoming. They’re cobbling together an innovative sense of community.

With luck, whole new versions of it will emerge, and public schools are helping birth them. Principal Steinhauer at George Webster is the daughter of someone who taught me when I was a kid at my synagogue school — and my kid was taught at Clinton school by someone I taught in the same synagogue when I was 16. It makes me feel a sense of garbled continuity in my own life, which is as much continuity as we often get to work with in this era. Community in the past involved clearer links: geographic, ethnic, religious. Those versions are gone, probably forever. They had a claustrophobic downside along with the strong sense of belonging they provided. They were like one-room country schools, which are easy to romanticize but could also be stifling. Community remains vital, maybe more than ever with the disconnection and insecurity spread by globalization. But for most of us now, a sense of community will have to be cobbled together using whatever fragments we can find: in real space, cyberspace, anywhere. It’s futile to expect the sort of wholeness that existed (we imagine) in other ages. I know a kid whose friends decided to go to a small, intimate alternate school; he chose instead a big mainstream school. He liked it for its size, range of resources and sheer human variety. He was opting for a new kind of community over the old.

Something else that would be nice when you feel at the mercy of distant impersonal forces would be the right to speak your mind and wield a bit of power. Democratic politics is supposed to provide that. But elections don’t help much; you get to vote every few years and go home. Local school boards were once more accessible and real. Some actual citizen politics happened there. But they’ve been neutered by provincial laws. And parent councils mostly fundraise.

So it’s another case where people have to cobble together a new version of the old: in this case, democratic involvement in the education system.

Like People for Education, a grassroots group begun by a group of moms who watched in horror what Mike Harris was doing to their kids’ schools. They met for years around Annie Kidder’s kitchen table in downtown Toronto, even after they became an influential province-wide group. Now they have an annual budget of $600,000. They figured out the politics and found their own way in. They were somehow naturally media savvy. They spent what they’d describe as a god-awful amount of time devising gimmicks to draw enough media attention to make the points they wanted to raise. Then they’d rush home and make their kids’ lunches or Halloween costumes. To gain political cred, and out of curiosity, they began collecting data on public schools that, amazingly, no one else had, including the ministry of education. The ministry wound up going to them for info, and treating them as a serious player. Kidder says they still argue everything out “the way women do — very emotional, lots of touching each other.” But once it’s settled, they can be “pretty fascistic” about staying on message. Their name used to sound wussy to me. But it’s as sophisticated as the rest of their operation. It implies that everyone, not just parents or pros, has the right to meddle in public education.

This kind of activism is heartening, since there are strong non-democratic forces vying to control public education. The main influence in the U.S. now is big corporate money, through foundations like those started by Bill Gates or Sam Walton. Leveraging their donations, they’ve largely taken over the agenda by promoting private schools paid with public funds (charter schools) and seeding their own people in the public systems, or demanding that favoured administrators remain in charge. Sometimes it’s done with fairly small sums. A few hundred thousand dollars can buy a lot of compliance in a hard-pressed school district. I’m not accusing them of evil motives. The problem isn’t that they view things through their own business perspective and want to slap that all over the schools. The problem is they’re unaccountable to anyone, but they have the money to take charge. So far their main thrust — charter schools, standardized tests, data-based accountability — has failed spectacularly, but serious damage is being done to a damaged system.

Speaking of unions, they take a pasting in the U.S. but in most good public systems they act as partners. Former B.C. deputy minister of education Charles Ungerleider says, “With some exceptions, virtually every improvement in public education has been due to teacher bargaining rather than the government sector.” He has in mind services for kids with special needs, ESL programs, reductions in primary class size, etc. Unions mess up, and many parents wish it was easier to get rid of a bad teacher. But they operate in a fundamentally democratic way and are a potential democratic resource.

Can democracy extend right into classrooms? That does sound odd. But kids learn more from what they see than what they’re formally taught. If a school proclaims, “This month’s value is respect” — which happens in Ontario — the kids will check it against how their teachers treat students. Kids are always checking stuff that comes from adults. Learning about democracy doesn’t mean knowing the levels of government and your obligation to vote. It starts with how seriously your right to have your own thoughts and opinions is treated.

This is where teaching comes in. If a school focuses on marks and teaches to the test, kids will concentrate on reproducing correct answers, not on developing their ability to think. They’ll see each other as competition rather than learning to solve problems together, which is how most issues get handled in the real world. Even in a personal crisis, you seek help from others who know you. This is especially true for thinking in a democracy, where common (as in: everyone has it) sense is the way to reach decisions.

So what you’re taught matters less than how you’re taught. A curriculum can be good, bad, or even offensive. As long as teachers encourage you to think about it, you’ll soon learn to think for yourself, and engage with others. Of course you can learn to think, and think democratically, in a private school. But the public system ought to be democratic thinking’s natural home.

So what you’re taught matters less than how you’re taught. A curriculum can be good, bad or even offensive. As long as teachers encourage you to think about it, you’ll soon learn to think for yourself, and engage with others.

Is this kind of mental democratic training useful, at a time when people worry most about the loss of good jobs? I’d say it’s totally useful. No private person facing a bad economy can do much about the choices before them. As individuals, they have to pick up whatever scraps (or jobs) are tossed their way. But people working together have often changed the shape of their society — in health care, jobs, many areas — by thinking, arguing, agreeing, then acting. Jobs aren’t the only crisis; there’s the environment. Kids are natural environmental idealists, but they need the tools to devise a plan, once they realize that their dismay alone won’t change things. It requires everyone to pitch in, and the public schools include everyone. They’re the natural place to rally the forces.

This also means there’s no one right way to prepare kids for the future they face. Democratically speaking, that would be undemocratic. In a way, democracy is education: everyone learning from everyone else. One thing I’ve discovered in recent months is there’s no deep mystery of education with a universal solution waiting to be revealed. Anyone who says they have it — and many do — is probably trying to build a career or sell a product. Lots of things work. Almost anything can, and it can also stop working, if you ease up.

I’ve always felt involved in education myself. I’ve taught, though only part-time, since my teens. But my early interest centred on personal liberation through “free schools” — private, often anarchic, places that frowned on grades and curriculum. Then, 12 years ago, I became a dad. For kindergarten, my kid went to a private Montessori school, and in Grade 1, into the public system. I was nervous about the move, but he wasn’t. You could see a sort of 6-year-old swagger in him as he walked the halls of our local school. As if he knew it was part of the real world in a way the sheltered fishbowl of Montessori wasn’t. And I was amazed at the sense of community I felt standing around with others in the schoolyard. Kids I know sense the privilege of being in school here, less due to the formal teaching they get than to the hugely varied “public” they go into classes with.

Canadians have tended to define ourselves as a society in terms of public health care, and it’s an achievement to take pride in. But public education is an accomplishment on a different level. Health care is biological; it’s about survival on a physical level and it’s similar for people everywhere. Education is more specific and social. It’s how we define the way we are, not simply that we are.

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