What's wrong with traditional schools?

July 16, 1998

For some, things just seemed better in previous times. Teachers stood in front of the class and taught. Students sat in rows and were polite (mind you, far fewer of them graduated). Schools didn't have to deal with complex social issues. Recently, a simplistic solution appears to be for like-minded parents to retreat from the perceived chaos of wider society. Some parents, seeking to escape the diversity that Canadian public schools must serve, have turned to traditional schools -- an alternative program now offered in a few public school districts.

Traditional schools are not, however, just another "choice" or alternative program within public education. They have become lightning rods for larger pedagogical and ideological battles in BC communities. They raise the question of what is the social purpose of public education. Should it serve merely the interests of individual parents and students or does it have a wider social obligation of bringing together diverse values and experiences and teaching children what it means to live in contemporary society?

Our Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study, "In the Name of 'Choice' -- A Study of Traditional Schools in BC" is one of the first which looks at three of BC's four traditional schools. This study undertook to shed light on what happens in traditional schools, and responses to them. As access to the schools themselves was denied by some traditional school proponents, we collected and analyzed available data and documentation on traditional schools, and conducted interviews with parents, teachers, principals, union representatives and school district staff and board members to provide as complete a picture as possible.

In very general terms, our study suggests that traditional schools, as they have been established in their respective districts, remain problematic for education stakeholders on political, rather than on educational, grounds; the agendas of activist parents, rather than curricula or pedagogy, is what distinguishes traditional schools from the rest of the public school system. Our research suggests that traditional schools serve a desire for like-minded parents to seek refuge from the challenges of public schools. The fact that we were unable to gain access to the schools, furthermore, raises questions about how "public" and accountable these schools are. Are advocates simply going to "hand-pick" research that appears to support their particular brand of values and politics?

Unlike other alternative programs, traditional schools have been advanced by neo-conservatives and Christian conservatives who give "failing grades" to public schools while simultaneously promoting charter systems and voucher schemes. In some districts, we found that newly-elected boards that share these views rushed through proposals for traditional schools without adequately consulting or gaining the support of other local public education stakeholders. The result was considerable community tension and hostility.

Moreover, many of the claims made about the efficacy of traditional schools (and the "failure" of the wider public school system) are not supported by current research concerning curricula, pedagogical methods and public school performance. Based on an analysis of their claims, we suggest that traditional schools are not all that distinct from other public schools regarding their instructional focus. Since traditional schools operate within a legal framework that does not lend itself to offering a program that is significantly different from neighbourhood schools, the question remains: what are traditional schools?

What does distinguish traditional schools, however, are their parental communities and home-school cultures. The rhetoric of "excellence in education," first-come/first-served admission procedures, and limited accessibility favour upper socio-economic, and philosophically conservative families. The traditional schools also appear to differ from other public schools in their explicit design of home-school coordination around issues of discipline, "family values," the implementation of uniform policies, and implicit Christian religious values. These factors may allow for greater cultural homogeneity and parental consensus over the type of education their children will receive, but these come at the cost of pluralism and equity that are at the heart of public education.

Some parents are demanding traditional schools, but much of this demand is orchestrated by a well-organized, well-heeled conservative movement. The Donner Foundation, for example, has contributed substantial funds to such organizations as Teachers for Excellence in Education (TFEE), the Parent Network, and the Fraser Institute. These organizations are attempting to erode confidence in the public school system by feeding the public misinformation and anecdotal evidence about public schools and making unsupported claims about "parental choice" and the privatization of schooling.

No doubt strong parental involvement in a child's schooling can effectively reinforce learning, but as a society, should we be supporting groups of parents that are trying to create enclaves separate from the regular public school system? Do we want, in effect, "private schools" within public education that serve privileged parents and not citizenry as a whole? Surely, we should we be supporting an agenda that leads not to a "balkanization" of schooling, but rather to a more inclusive, equitable, and quality education for all children that is fully supported by the public.