Can public criticism about education be counter-productive?

First of all,  I am not suggesting that no one say anything against the various education systems throughout Canada. That would be silly. We live in a democracy and free speech and protesting are expected. However, at some point, when the complaining and criticism becomes both all-encompassing and unrealistic, it becomes counter-productive to any type of meaningful reform.

So, as a blogger, am I part of that problem? In the five years I have been blogging, I have written about many of the public’s criticisms and demands of the education system — usually agreeing with them. Sometimes my complaints have been about government policies, such as “no-fail” and “social promotion.”  But, I have also been known to complain about the lack of meaningful parental input on school councils, as well as how teachers are too easily influenced by their unions.

However, what I have never done is criticize the front line workers themselves — the teachers — because as a former teacher myself, as well as a former teacher educator, I know they are just doing what they are told to do! Put another way, teachers go to school each morning thinking about what they are going to do that day to help their students. They do not go to school thinking about how they could reform the system. Why not? Because whether some members of the public or parents like it or not, that is not their role any more than a nurse would openly complain about his or her hospital’s practices. It’s called professionalism.  

So, it was quite an eye-opener when I recently took part in a comment thread at the EduChatter blog where there are some 500+ comments (causing slow uploading of the link), most of which are criticising every aspect of Canadian education, from teachers to school board administrations to faculties of education and researchers — what some of the commenters refer to dismissively as either educrats or part the education blob.

Now, while I have a great deal of respect for EduChatter’s owner, Paul Bennett, who is a retired educator like myself, if you follow the repeat commenters from start to finish, you would swear that schools throughout all of Canada’s territories and provinces, were in immediate danger of collapse.  

Well, public education in Canada is not in free-fall anymore than it was when I taught school or went to school. There have always been complaints about the public education system because there is always a five to ten-year lag.  Could improvements be made? Of course. But, they come after the fact because of the role politics plays in the process. In Canada, for example, political parties govern for either four or eight years. Usually, no longer than that. Therefore, that is usually the pace of educational change.

Now, having experienced the EduChatter thread, which by its sheer numbers of comments, was indicative of the dissatisfaction of many, it occurred to me that two of the reasons the teachers’ unions might be resisting reform was due to unreasonable public/parent expectations or what I will call “responsibility creep.”

Think about it. There are still the same number of hours in a school day as when I taught thirty years ago. There is no magic there. Six and a half hours is the same now as then. Yes, many schools have gone to block scheduling because it allows them to take a few minutes from both the lunch and recess breaks. And, yes, some of that time is for prep time. But, given all the new demands, it is obvious that teachers need that time!

Which perhaps is a round-about way to bring me to the latest example of parent demand and responsibility creep. As the Vancouver Sun’s Janet Steffenhagen writes, a B.C. parent is taking the North Vancouver School District and B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development to the B.C. Human Rights Commission. Why? Because he wants a teacher or teaching assistant to be taught to give his son regular insulin shots. His case is based on the issue of fairness and equity that because his son is disabled, he should be able to receive the “accommodations” he needs.

Now, diabetes is a horrible disease and it must be awful for the child to have to be subjected to regular blood sugar level checks and insulin shots as required. But, injecting needles should not be a part of a teacher’s job. They are trained in learning and how to implement curricula, not on how to be a health care provider.

What should that parent be doing instead? I would recommend, even now, that the emphasis on the complaint be changed to demand that, as an accommodation of his young son’s diabetes/disability, that B.C. school districts be directed to provide a school nurse in every school for at least part of every day. I mean, that used to be the norm. In fact, most older schools still have a nurse’s room.   

So, yes, while everyone means well when they criticise education, they need to do it in such a way that reform is reasonable and possible within the time available. And, while they are doing that, they need to support the teachers, who are simply front line workers trying to teach children the best they can and in spite of all the interference and armchair quarterbacks.

Lastly, the constant criticism and pessimism against the education system and those involved (particularly those who teach at the university level) is not a question of ideology. Conservatives, liberals and progressives are all involved in making their demands known, albeit for different reasons. However, the crux of the matter is that all that noise can be counter-productive if it is not directed in the right direction — at the politicians!