April 2006: The False Gods of Public Education

Our flawed school system in need of fundamental changes
April 1, 2006

As a teacher and researcher in Ontario and abroad for 50+ years, I have come to believe that public education on this continent--and indeed throughout the advanced world--is serving some false gods: superior paper credentials in literacy and numeracy, computer proficiency, skill in doing standardized tests, and vaulting hurdles in the higher education and job markets. The alpha god of all these lesser gods is economic productivity.

It is always hazardous to challenge the gods because they enjoy so much public esteem. And if the god of economic productivity is a false god in public education, then what should be a true and beneficial god? Without hesitation, I award the honour to social inclusiveness, the sine qua non of a democratic school system in a democratic society. The false gods have served the advantaged segment of our youth population very well, but have left the bottom third at a disadvantage--and some of them on the dangerous margin of the social order.

Allowing for its many successes, let me sketch some ways in which public education is actually harmful, and why it needs to be changed fundamentally. Let me start with a summary list:

  • Class distinctions engendered by schooling.
  • Winners and losers.
  • Some toxic effects of the school cocoon.
  • Public health considerations.

Class distinctions

About midway through the last century, secondary schooling in the United States shifted heavily towards sorting kids according to ability to ensure that the best got the best instruction while the others at least got sympathetic "treatment." In Ontario, the Reorganized Program of Studies of 1962--the so-called Robarts Plan, in honour of Education Minister (later Premier) John Robarts--featured an elaborate scheme for streaming high school students into academic and vocational/commercial programs, with "academic" and "non-academic" streams or tracks within each category. The five-year "academic" types could qualify for university and the four-year "non-academic" leftovers would seek jobs or admission to a college of applied arts and technology. Twenty of these colleges were built in the province almost instantly, juiced by a bundle of vocational training money from Ottawa. No other province in Canada was as quick off the mark in the scramble for this money.

The politicians and their planners naively believed that the needs of an advanced industrial society would be served by sophisticated school counselling, informed parents, and compliant students. Within five years of its implementation, however,it was evident that the Robarts Plan was not working as intended. Instead of a nice balance between academic and vocational education and between five-year and four-year programs, reflecting the demographic make-up of the province, the five-year programs attracted a hefty majority of the students: 62%. Furthermore, these students were overwhelmingly registered in the academic stream leading to the universities and the professions. Many of the magnificently equipped shops and studios financed with federal money remained half empty, only to be closed 20 years later.

There was well-grounded suspicion that social class was a factor in the assignment of students to a program. Working class youngsters were pushed into two- or four-year programs for reasons that were suspect in some homes. The academic subjects in those second-rate programs were "watered down" and the teaching was mediocre. The best teachers, during a period of short supply, claimed the five-year classes. The four-year types were heavily skewed towards commercial/ vocational training. What came out in the wash was a streamed system, élitist beyond anyone’s expectations. The underside of the Robarts Plan, then, was the emergence of a dumping ground for "poor" students, poorly taught and poorly regarded by the public.

Since then, there has been a non-stop parade of new ideas and programs in public education: integration of elementary and secondary, special services for special kids (those with learning disabilities, the gifted, the physically disabled, newly arrived immigrants), more choice in senior high school course selection, cooperative education schemes, school architecture to foster independent learning and team teaching, community involvement in school planning. Throughout, one thing has not changed and that is the increasing ingenuity of educators, served by a very profitable testing industry, in sorting students according to their prospects in the urban-industrial economy .

My Queen’s colleague, Dr. Alan J.C. King, has conducted masses of research on this subject over the past 30 years. In 1988, King identified in Ontario high schools a backwater of failing advanced level students, unmotivated working class kids, and uninspired teaching. He traced declining standards to various efforts to keep general level students in school while large numbers of them worked part-time in service industry jobs.

The education planners, prodded by worried politicians, responded repeatedly with more rigor in the classroom which, among other things, has led to a worrisome rise in the drop-out rate continuing to the present time. This has happened because more rigor has typically taken the form of more and more subject matter to be memorized and reproduced on test papers. In his study of Ontario secondary education in 2002, Dr. King reported that only 32% of applied students (non-academic) completed the 16 credits of Grades 9 and 10 in the allotted two years. What used to be a dumping ground for non-academic types was turning into a wasteland of failures.

The Ontario Minister of Education, in 2002, responded to the crisis by saying to reporters: "The alternative is to water down the standards and just pass the kids, whether they’re getting the subjects or not, and just put them out there in the world not prepared to succeed." The implication of that statement is that education in the Information Age consists of packing kids’ heads full of details, useful or not, relevant or not, and testing the hell out of them. That way, they learn the essentials and the teachers are held accountable.

Winners and losers

In the process described above, the provinces of Canada and the states of the U.S.A. have all jumped onto the standardized testing bandwagon--with dubious results. Some school systems conduct government tests every single year from Grades 1 to 12—Idaho, for example. Most systems mandate such tests at least twice in each of the elementary and secondary years. The tests lean heavily towards multiple-choice questions which can be machine scored. They cost a lot to administer--about $50 million annually in Ontario.

In Ontario, in 2000, the Mike Harris Conservative government added a Grade 10 literacy test to the existing bank of tests as a condition of earning a high school diploma. There could hardly have been a more stunning display of class bias than the failure of 70% of the Grade 10 vocational students in that first literacy test. In that same year, 78% of Grade 9 applied students failed the government mathematics test. Most of these students would not have been stuck with the stigma of failure had they been assessed for their actual performance in skills they were learning in and out of school. But the gods of literacy and numeracy are not served that way.

Here is an American story: In Massachusetts, a mere 26% of Grade 10 students were in the proficient or better categories after the first round of testing in 1998. Test scores have been improved since (which is no proof of intellectual growth) while the gap between white students and black/hispanic students remains wide. I got hold of a copy of The Boston Globe of September 4, 2004. In it there were six full pages of lists of government test results in that state, Grades 3 to 10, spread over the previous three years. I was able to identify the "best" and the "worst" schools and where the most "improvement" had taken place. The 275 public high schools were listed in the order of their pass percentages in English and Mathematics. Try to imagine the shame of living within the boundaries of the 275th high school! You would sell your house and move if you could find a buyer. In that sad school, only 52% passed the Grade 10 math test in 2004.

Alfie Kohn, Peter Sacks, Audrey Amrein, and David Berliner are American authors who have published studies of the testing mania which has swept over North America. They are part of a growing international movement to take back the schools from the testing companies which are reaping huge profits while undermining the autonomy of teachers and the legitimate role of parents in the teaching/learning process. Not long ago, the people of Finland renounced standardized testing and put their faith where it belongs: in the hands of teachers and principals.

Living in the school cocoon

Schools are dysfunctional places in many respects. They are fertile seed grounds for bullying, e-mail hate-mongering, smoking tobacco, doing drugs, engaging in unsafe sex, negative peer pressure about nearly everything, competition as a prime value, materialism, cliques and gang codes of behaviour, the iron bands of teen conventionalism in dress and language--any of which can be contributing factors in teenagers’ mental and physical health. Of course, schools are happy places, by and large, for the winners on the playing field and in the high marks game.

In the worst-case scenarios, there are outbursts of deadly violence, as happened in Littleton, Colorado, in April, 1999. The two killer kids at Columbine High School were reported to be outcasts willing to kill as their way of challenging the cliques who controlled the social scene at their high school. Not long after Columbine, mimic tragedies occurred in other parts of the U.S. and in Alberta.

These extreme cases point to the baneful effects of the high school cocoon which, contrary to human history, keeps youngsters in a state of extended adolescence until they are 18 years old. Historically, teenagers and even pre-teens worked side by side with adults, sometimes in ugly circumstances. The important point is that they interacted with the adult world every day and without the distractions of a teen culture. Gordon MacDougall, Vice-President of St. Lawrence College in Kingston, says that "mentoring should be part of our culture," by which he means that adults should be engaged routinely in helping youth to understand the realities of successful living and positive citizenship. School, in a "mentoring" society, would cease being a cultural ghetto.

Another of my colleagues at Queen’s, Dr. Don Campbell (retired), is now writing a book about the youth justice systems of Canada and New Zealand. In it, he takes aim at the Safe Schools Act in Ontario (2002) in which a Conservative government passed into law measures to protect the “good” kids from the “bad” kids. In the application of the law, school principals were left with very little discretion in handling cases of verbal threats, swearing at a teacher, possession of alcohol or drugs, vandalizing school property, physical or sexual assault, use or possession of a weapon, selling drugs, and theft. These are the options: Suspension up to 20 days, expulsion for 21 days to a year, and/or calling the police to make an arrest and press charges.

Don Campbell notes that the Act provides no provisions for mediation, conflict resolution, nor due process in the accepted sense of that term. "The trouble with zero tolerance," says Campbell, "is its intolerance."

Public health considerations

In the early 1990s, Dr. Paul Steinhauer of Toronto launched Voices For Children, an organization for improving community awareness of needy children. Steinhauer claims that one in four children in our culture displays early signs of emotional or behavioural problems which put them at risk of academic failure, school drop-out, and anti-social or criminal activities. He says that children’s attitudes to school, either negative or positive, are set by Grade 3 or 4.

In 1995, Dr. Steinhauer attacked the plan of the federal Liberal government to reduce cash transfers to the provinces as part of a major effort to eliminate the deficit and bring the national debt under control. He said that cuts in federal grants to provinces would lead directly to cuts in social services at the provincial level, with consequent damage to support services (child care, mental health services, social assistance, low-cost housing) for the families most in need of them. That is exactly how things turned out.

For 20 years or more, public health officials have been warning of the effects of drugs prescribed by doctors to modify the behaviour of school students. U.S. psychiatrist Lawrence Diller reported that in 1996 the drug Ritalin and other related stimulants were prescribed for as many as three-and-a-half million U.S. children to help them succeed in school. Such reports support my suspicion that the traditional classroom, touted as the central cockpit of learning, was a factor in an epidemic of drug-controlled behaviour.

On April 7, 2001, The Globe and Mail ran a double-page spread by Dawn Walton about the explosion in the use, both legal and illegal, of Ritalin and Dexedrine. The reporter presented evidence that the open-handed medical prescription of behaviour-modifying drugs for children was leading to hard drug addictions later. Police departments in the big cities, she reported, were forming units for cracking down on the illicit use and sale of Ritalin.

The inference might be drawn that public education policies in the industrialized world are the only reason for the surging use of prescription drugs by school-children. That would lay an unfair burden of blame at the doorstep of education planners, teachers, and administrators. There is a complex of factors at work: diet, home atmosphere, parental pressure to succeed, school expectations, neurological make-up and, not least, the harmful effects of the consumer society.

William S. Pollack, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has written extensively about the anxieties of schoolboys in our current fast-paced economy. In his recent book, Pollack quotes a 13-year-old boy in New England who said, "My dad scares the crap out of me: ‘If you want to be a pilot, if you’re not going to collect garbage, if you’re not going to flip burgers at McDonalds and you want to fly planes making $300,000 a year, if you’re going to invest, if you’re going to have children, if you’re going to have a houmungous house, if you’re going to have a pool, if you’re going to have a car, if you’re going to have your own plane, if you’re going to have a boat—then you’re going to have to do good in math.’ I’m like, okay, okay, okay."

Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Gabor Mate, author of Scattered Minds, argues that Attention Deficit Disorder is a condition more reflective of our lifestyle and value system than a medical illness. (The opposite view is that the disorder results from a brain malfunction which is subject, therefore, to chemical correction). Dr. Maté concedes that he too prescribes Ritalin in those cases where the symptoms are clearly persuasive and where the young patient agrees to take the drug. Some parents defend Ritalin for having brought peace and order into their homes and better reports from school. Other parents report intolerable side-effects such as insomnia and digestive upset.

There is a bundle of anti-depressant drugs now being prescribed for children and youth as well as adults: Celexa, Prozac, Luvox, Remeron, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor. I do not know anything about the long-term effects of these drugs, but the alarming thing is that the people who manufacture and prescribe them do not know nearly enough, either. That is the claim of Dr. Joel Lexchin, author of widely-used guidelines for prescribing drugs. The newspaper story that probed this matter (The Globe and Mail, February 5, 2004) reported that Health Canada has added an advisory to its website urging teenagers taking any of these selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors to check with their physicians whether the benefits of the drugs outweigh their potential risks.

In the U.S., a major study completed by John S. March of Duke University in 2004 concluded that one in 20 adolescents in that country is clinically depressed and at risk of major depressive disorder, suicide, and long-term psycho-social impairment as adults. The primary conclusion of the study is that treating teen depression with a combination of fluoxetine (Prozac) and cognitive behavioural therapy is the most effective current treatment for the disease. The study did not specifically relate teen depression to schooling. All that we know is that school is a leading influence in the life of every child from 5 to 16 years of age.


The time has come to consider major changes in the culture and practice of schooling so that going to school contributes to good mental and physical health, as well as good marks. That seems like a very practical proposition.

Suggested further reading:

1. Davis, Bob – Skills Mania, Snake Oil in the Classroom, Between the Lines, Toronto, 2000
2. Kohn, Alfie – The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools, Houghton Mifflin N. Y., 2000
3. Maté, Gabor, Scattered Minds, Alfred Knopf, Toronto, 1999

(Peter H. Hennessy is a professor emeritus of education at Queen’s University, a lecturer, columnist, and the author of five books, including his latest—From Student to Citizen: A Community-Based Vision of Democracy—to be published this month by White Knight Books, Toronto.)