A Wall Between Us: the Dichotomy in Education

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Two months ago, the Toronto International Film Festival became the beacon for the city drawing an urban, Bohemian crowd while boasting an eclectic mix in cinema of political, economic and cultural realms, yet it was a film about education that became the apex of media attention.

Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” featured at TIFF, and has quickly become the nexus for the neo-progressive reform on education in the United States. Featuring a plethora of ‘altruistic’ crusaders such as Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and former Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, the film situates ineffective teachers and teachers’ union as sole obstacles to a children’s intrinsic desire to learn in public schools.

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The reformist movement – initially inspired by philosopher John Dewey – has sprung into full-force featuring mega-celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, John Legend and a number of philanthropists from the Billionaires Boys Club, including Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Waltons (paradoxically, Gates’ children attend private schools). Initially sparked by George W. Bush’s 2001’s establishment, the No Child Left Behind Act, and re-enforced by President Obama’s Race to the Top program as part of the stimulus package in 2009, Canada’s shared ideology with the U.S is expect to have a trickle-down effect with calls for systemic change.

Unsurprisingly, the public response has been polarized

Left-wing reformists base their argument on of tenureship in teaching which is unparallel in other occupations, and disregards the crucial factor of performance exemplified in “value-added” assessments. While practitioners have been quick to fire-back on the grounds of shoe-string budgets, overpopulated factory-like classrooms and the unpublicized expectation of undertaking tasks outside of their job description (i.e social worker, child psychologist, parent etc). As these two parties continue to mud-sling, often citing irrational if not quixotic rhetoric, students continue to suffer with no end in sight.

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With this in mind, what is the solution?

Note bene, acknowledge the structural barriers that exist. As famed British author and international advisor Sir Ken Robinson states, the public education system was conceptualized during the Industrial Revolution. Square classrooms, straight rows, ringing bells and an ultra-hierarchical structure only re-enforces a Marxist discourse. Students were streamlined based on occupational demand and economic conditions. Some students were selected for the ‘intellectually-stimulating’ pursuit for higher education while others were placed on a path towards the essential vocational occupations.

However archaic and inhumane this may seem, in a modern society so preoccupied with upward mobility and status, it created a sense of balance and focus for children that seem to be ever-lost in this tortuous path to ‘finding themselves.’

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For all our new-age thinkers and contemporary methods, educational practice continues to be in doldrums.  Public pressure in providing a universal system founded on equality and transparency has resulted in standardized testing, disregarding a vast array of learning styles in an era of overanxious and underprepared students. Students continue to be educated based on age rather than ability (while it is true that we are rejuvenating how to accurately assess a student’s ability – thanks Howard Gardner – traditional methods continue to be used). In one class alone, a student could be classified on the verge of Mensa while at the opposite end a student could be struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills. How can one instruct students with such large gaps in knowledge?

5Not alone, the rise of students being considered ‘at risk’ with learning disabilities, emotional disorders and behavioural issues only disclose the belief that our current system – not teachers – is not equipped to deal with the current state of affairs. The Globe and Mail’s and Macleans Magazine’s documented coverage of boys’ struggles re-enforces the notion that one-half of Ontario’s two-million student population’s needs are not properly being addressed.

However, there are options. An insurgency of private academies, sport and dance-specific schools and alternative schools appealing to cultural minorities have revealed benefits, but these come with strings attached: steep tuition fees, fierce competition, and geographical predicaments.

Ultimately we are left in the same quandary that we began with.

Rather than continue the mud-slinging based, we as educators need to find a solution that connects theory with practice. There is no need for draconian measures such as firing teachers and destabilizing an occupation in an environment which is often considered a ‘home’ for many students. This will only intensify the power struggle filled with perpetual hyperbole.

Rather, allow for top-down regional management with more site-based autonomy where schools have the power to make the necessary changes based on communal and experiential concerns. As revealed by the U.S Department of Education’s Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools,” some of our southern neighbours most successful schools have been forged on attracting a new wave of high-achieving social entrepreneurs to replace the current aura of banality that exists in education.

7Within the school, offering the option of certain classes based on ability can push students to achieve while igniting a passion in an area. Creating flexible courses where students take part in shaping their own curriculum creates a sense of accountability while tailoring to the student’s learning style and potentially preparing the student for post-secondary education.  Alternatively, offer co-op partnerships with local community organizations and businesses that allow for concrete development while padding a resume in an ever-increasing competitive job market.

Charles Bagwell, principal of Arcadia Elementary in South Carolina, recognized the growing Hispanic enrollment of immigrants in the region. Acknowledging obstacles such as limited English proficiency and potential cultural shock, Mr. Bagwell transformed the school into a multifaceted community centre featuring pedagogical learning, parenting and ESL classes. All of this occurred while suffering from district budget cuts.

His partnerships with Churches, local businesses and the Boys & Girls Club presented an additional yet necessary source of revenue while providing students with extra resources such as after-school programs and a summer camp gratis. More notably, his annual Cinco de Mayo celebration of food and music has been efficacious, with a community that has openly embraced cultural pride.

Mr. Bagwell’s innovations were made possible because he was given autonomy, creative control and support from a school system.

Our traditional us-versus-them dichotomy in education has only amplified a tension between parties that are supposed to be working together. Isn’t it time for a different approach?

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