Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Diversity in Education -- Part I

Simon Lono at Offal News comments on the issue of how to ensure genuine diversity of approaches and perspectives in education so as to ensure that the delivery of education does not become a bureaucratic exercise.

I confess that I have a strong belief in the public school system as a matter of principle and have seen little to persuade me as matter of public practice it is surpassed by anything to be found in any of the private systems that are out there. Indeed, I see the public system of education in Canada as being far more important than the public system of medical care not only for its utilitarian purposes (let's have an education everyone) but also for its moral value as a tool of creating a shared set of public values (a commitment to democratic values for example).

On a personal level I will note that these values can be sorely tested when dealing with one's own child. I live within 10 minutes walk of two of Canada's finest private schools and in deciding where to send our daughter my wife and I debated long and hard over the virtues of those schools over the public schools (ultimately settling on the public system). The long-established private school system in British Columbia and Ontario offer an excellent education but one cannot lose sight of the degree to which that flows from the fact that there is a de facto segregation of students from privileged backgrounds (they can pay tuition upwards of $12,000 per year) from students with problematic backgrounds (poorer families, children with special needs or children with poor academics). This tends to skew test results (the meat and drink of the Fraser Institute) and also creates an environment that tends to uniformly value achievement and success (nothing wrong with the latter but the struggle is to extend those values to other family environments).

What worries me about this approach to creating diverse educational opportunities are two things. First, it is a practical solution for only a very limited number of people and as it is expanded to a larger range of people the advantages rapidly disappear (since they largely flow from the exclusionary abilities of private schools). Second, it encourages a lack of political investment in the public system on the part of the parents and children who have opted out -- and in many cases these are the most politically active and influential members of our society. Thus there is a danger of creating something of a vicious cycle -- fewer politically engaged and influential people are in the public system and so there is less pressure for proper public support and this in turn creates more incentives for those who can to opt out into the provate system. But is it fair to conscript parents and children into the cause of public education?

In my view the middle way lies in recognizing that public education does not in fact have to mean either (1) the same education or (2) completely centrally controlled education. The former goal is easier to achieve in larger centres where there can be different schools with different focuses and approaches -- for example schools that emphasize science or the arts or french education -- but similar results can be achieved in smaller areas with some creative thinking at either the school or school board level.

The second goal can be achieved be allowing greater autonomy at both the school and school board level in terms of a range of matters and also by designing a curriculum that is not excessively prescriptive . To complement this parents have to be allowed reasonable flexiblility to send their students to different schools in the public system. Combining all of this allows for schools to evolve diverse responses to parent and child interests within a somewhat secular framework.

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