When thinking back to one’s favourite teachers, it is difficult to put a finger on what made them memorable or particularly formative. It is also difficult to say what all good teachers have in common, except maybe a willingness to adapt. Bad teachers certainly have more in common than good ones; bad teachers think too much in terms of right and wrong, this way or that. But on a larger scale, it’s the system that makes or breaks the quality of education. Rick Salutin’s essay “Keeping the Public in Public Education” examines the public school system and its many downfalls. The system’s focus on standardized testing, the growing number of educational choices (arts schools, “gifted” programs, etc.) are elucidated by Salutin in his impassioned argument for reimagining education in Canada and abroad.
“What works, works,” Salutin writes. Don’t be dogmatic. There are many right ways, there are certainly wrong ways, but there isn’t one of each. The “what works, works” mantra is refreshingly simple because of our tendencies towards offering answers, insofar as something that we’ve found successful we will endorse for others. But as Salutin examines various successful public school programs in Canada, which are sadly few and far between, it becomes apparent that the one-size-fits-all mentality is the norm.
Comfort can be taken, however, in that some things are being done right. Salutin has nothing but praise for Pathways to Education, a successful equity program in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. With many incentives, mostly financial, keeping the students in school, the numbers indicate the program’s staggering success: the graduation rate for students in the program is 93%. Another successful program focusing on aboriginal students in Saskatchewan has also shown particular merits. These programs are vastly different, but they work because they are catered to a particular community.
Salutin goes on to examine the phenomenon of charter schools in the United States which are funded by public money but whose students are admitted based on a lottery system. Salutin calls charter schools quick fix for the test-score oriented, and believes them to “undermine the only real choice for most families: public schools.”
Salutin also makes the argument against school choice using Toronto as an example. With a wide selection of public schools focusing on various disciplines, be it French, arts, or “gifted” programs, choosing which high school to go to becomes tantamount to choosing which college or university to attend. Salutin argues that specialized schools deprive children of exposure to different kinds of people with different modes of learning. More importantly is his point that specialty schools take the focus away from improving public schools as a whole: if there is a French school, an arts school, and a school for gifted children, then the weight is removed from the neighbourhood schools to improve their own programs. This “privatizing from within” may be good for some, but comes at a very real cost to many more.
Turning the focus overseas, Salutin uses Finland as an example of a public school system whose entire structure points to its success. Educators in Finland are as esteemed as doctors or lawyers, they all have Masters degrees, and they must go through rigorous application procedures. Children don’t begin attending school until they are 7 years old, and they spend fewer hours in a classroom as compared to Canadian students. The high school graduation rate is 93% compared to Canada’s 76. Maybe most importantly, as it reflects the value of education, the teachers are paid very well.
What Salutin concludes is that while “almost anything will work,” the structure must be in place to allow teachers to try new things and support them in the possibility of failing. Finland consistently scores very highly on standardized tests precisely because they are not the goal, but rather a product of a well-designed and well-supported public school system.
In the end, Salutin points to the words of John Dewey: “There is no method of thinking. Thinking is the method of thinking.” There is no one model for everyone, but why isn’t this obvious?