Overdue Assignment:
Taking Responsibility for Canada's Schools

by Graham Orpwood, Jennifer Lewington,
264 pages,
ISBN: 0471640476

School's Out

by Andrew Nikiforuk,
224 pages,
ISBN: 092191248X

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Learning Curves
by George Kaufman

FORGET the old cliche about weather; these days everyone is talking about education. Though school-bashing has been a popular sport since Plato's time, the education system in Canada seems to be under attack as never before. In fact, criticizing our schools has become a growth industry, spawning numerous newspaper and magazine articles, TV special reports, and books.

Two of the latest efforts offer much to think about for those wishing to get past the headlines and political posturing. But they also tend to exemplify the worst aspects of the current criticism, even while they put forth some worthy ideas for reforming the schools.

School's Out, by the Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Nikiforuk, and Overdue Assignment, by the Globe education reporter Jennifer Lewington and the educator Graham Orpwood, are media responses to a genuine outpouring of public concern and criticism about what's going on in Canadian classrooms. But do they really answer the big questions that have been raised about education in this country?

The first problem with writing about Canada's education system, of course, is that there is no such thing: all provincial systems go their own way in many important areas of operation. However, they do share some common elements, which are explored in both books.

Still, taking on the task of examining "Canada's schools" is a tricky proposition. In School's Out, Andrew Nikiforuk simply doesn't even bother with such a distinction, and often refers to "North American" education as an entity. He also takes an intellectualized approach that will lose many readers concerned about why Johnny can't read. In fact, his rarefied ruminations about the "ideals" of Greek and Aztec philosophies are muddled and contradictory enough to deter even the determined reader. Likewise, his too-clever depictions of the education systems as various fruits (watermelon, cantaloupe, avocado) will leave many scratching their heads.

The book's subtitle (The Catastrophe in Public Education and What We Can Do About It) makes plain Nikiforuk's purpose. He likes to refer to his book as his polemic, and talks of the "new idiocy" and the "dumbing" of the texts. This attitude tends to get in the way of some of his points, since there is little pretence of an objective examination of education.

What Nikiforuk does do well, though, is denude the education emperors of their new clothes, especially with his caustic comments on such teaching trends as whole language. And bursts of truth jump off the page, for example:

The current crusade for multicultural education (the "tolerance for diversity" bandwagon) is also philosophically bankrupt. It ignores the uncomfortable truth that most multicultural policies were born out of an attempt to bribe new immigrants to support particular political parties.

An unpopular, but vital, bit of history from a critic who fills the invaluable role of gadfly of the Canadian education establishment.

Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood take a much more reasonable and reasoned approach in Overdue Assignment. Their criticisms of the "industrial" schools of today are often right on target, even if many of their proposed alternatives seem simplistic and impractical.

But their descriptions of "typical" classroom situations are as bothersome as Nikiforuk's The scenario of students "sitting impassively while the teacher imparts abstract ideas" simply doesn't happen in many of today's schools. That sort of scene reinforces the suspicion that many vocal critics of our schools don't really know what's going on in them today.

Any writer can throw together negative anecdotes about an entity as large as "Canada's schools" and succeed in making it look bad. Where Overdue Assignment shines is where it moves past that stage, and talks frankly about real problems.

Any discussion of our schools, for example, must hinge on the point, made many times over in this book, that the school population is becoming increasingly multicultural. Currently, that's mainly a Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver problem, but it won't be long before it will be a national issue facing nearly every school board.

The "solution" used to be simply spending more money (heritage-language courses, etc.). As the authors point out, the current rounds of cost-cutting make that unviable. Unfortunately, the discussion of alternatives, from abolishing school boards in favor of community autonomy to turning parents into consumers shopping for the best product, offers few practical ideas.

While the authors espouse moving beyond mere reform of the school system to a totally new vision, Overdue Assignment remains that - just a vision. For instance, although they offer a helpful overview of the debate about tests and evaluations, they find they must end with a caveat: "However, there are dangers that outcome-based education could be just another fad."

Although both these books will serve as useful references along the way while we wrestle with the many issues surrounding our schools, neither is a pragmatic blueprint for realistic change. Besieged and besmirched though they may be, Canadian schools are not in the state of "catastrophe" painted Orpwood and Lewington, for example, approvingly quote an American writer who concludes that school "...is not the solution. It is the problem." That sort of ingenuous call to arms may well strike a chord with a frustrated public anxious for simplistic solutions to complex problems. But it doesn't go very far toward discovering solutions that will I children learn in schools that are, yes, in need of genuine reform.


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