Flip the System and Build from the Schools Up

Put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers

The State of the System
Paul W Bennett
McGill-Queen’s University Press

In this adapted excerpt from his new book, The State of the System, author Paul W Bennett argues for a complete rethinking of education systems in Canada, one that centres teachers as experts on education, yet fully engages parents and families. And above all else, puts students’ educational needs first.

The COVID-19 school system shutdown was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in K-12 education.

What emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities.

Some 40 years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of provincial and school district education governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education

Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human scale.

Since the early 1980s, a Human Scale Education (HSE) movement has shone a light on the critical need to right size high schools. The guiding practices of the movement embraced small schools (250 to 300 students), teaching teams, cross-curricular integration, inquiry-based learning, assessment of learning, enhancement of student voices and genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms

Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. Neo-liberal education reform ushered in a whole new language that education professor Gert Biesta has termed “learnification”—the emergence of a new, technocratic “language of education” where students are referred to as “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and school is a “learning environment.” The dominance of such a language, promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, is to subvert the real point of education—to learn something,to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Challenging education gurus and their unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools

Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.

What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day

Provincial governments in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have eliminated or neutered locally elected school boards and moved dramatically in the direction of centralizing control over their systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

When normalcy returns, you can expect parents and community activists to rise up, once again, in local “save our school” movements against the relentless advance of educational centralization and school consolidation.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. In the wake of COVID-19, we are more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities.

With my book comes a call to turn the system right side up and to chart a more constructive path forward. Reengineering the System is essentially about taking back our schools.

Written By

Paul W Bennett is director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax and national coordinator for Canada of researchED. He is the author of numerous books on education.

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