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Tyee Books

The Must Read on BC Schools You Won't Like

UVic historian of education paints a bleak political picture, and blames all sides.

By Crawford Kilian 3 Jan 2012 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee who writes regularly on education matters. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

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Potential lessons: Something to learn for all involved in educating the next generation.

Just about everyone with an interest in B.C. schools will have to read this book -- parents, teachers, trustees, administrators, politicians, the media. None of them are going to like it.

That's because Thomas Fleming, a professor emeritus at UVic, has studied our schools for many years; he knows the system we set up back in 1849. He knows how it's changed, not always for the better. With energetic impartiality, he finds fault with teachers, trustees, civil servants, and politicians, especially since the first NDP government took power 40 years ago.

From his earlier books and articles, I was familiar with his thesis: B.C. education had been effectively nonpolitical from 1872 until 1972. A handful of dedicated ministry officials had run the schools in an "imperial" style from Victoria, while sending equally dedicated inspectors out to make sure the system was running well. Those inspectors were often veterans of rural and urban schools who had risen through the ranks.

Everyone knew everyone. Disputes were a matter of internal arguments between old-fashioned supporters of class-based schools and those who supported John Dewey's progressive new ideas. Provincial governments let the ministry carry on without political interference.

I had first considered this a little too utopian a vision, but in this book Fleming makes a fuller and more persuasive case. The school system was a patchwork of hundreds of local schools, run by local boards. They had no expertise in education; they just wanted their children to be able to read and write and do sums. While scattered over a vast area, the number of pupils and teachers was small: in 1872, the new province with almost a million square kilometres had just 1,700 students.

Moreover, it was a system in which completion of Grade 8 was a notable achievement, and only a small percentage even tried to go on to high school.

The imperial school system

Given the dispersal of the student population, "imperial" administration made sense. As teachers worked their way up into that administration they gained direct, first-hand knowledge of the system and of the people in it. A typical career could include stints in rural schools, then urban, then a school inspector's position, an appointment as a district superintendent, and perhaps finally an important job in the ministry.

But as the population grew and the provincial economy changed, pressure grew to consolidate the many tiny school districts and to offer high school education to far more students. The major urban districts like Vancouver and Victoria became bureaucratized early, but other districts soon developed the same way. They had to, if they were going to serve their enormous new regions.

With the end of World War II and the start of the baby boom, demand for education intensified. So did the demand for local autonomy: trustees were better educated now, and wanted more control over their districts.

Fleming identifies a key change: Boards gained the power to hire their own superintendents, rather than accept those sent them by Victoria. This had a couple of major effects. First, superintendents were now more loyal to their boards than to the ministry. Furthermore, many ministry officials quit to take superintendents' positions. The ministry of education began to hollow out and to lose touch with the schools it oversaw.

A wisdom deficit

The superintendents were both hired and fired, creating turnover at a rate never before seen. I can well believe that this created a kind of wisdom deficit as new trustees and teachers (and new superintendents) lost the benefit of the old-timers' experience.

Fleming is less clear about what caused the changes in the culture of the BCTF. He argues that power moved from strong local teachers' associations to the provincial organization, but doesn't explain why teachers in the late 1960s were becoming so collectively hostile to the government. The baby boomers' sheer numbers were driving the growth of the schools. Their teachers, however, had grown up in the Depression and war years, the golden era of education harmony and respect for authority.

Part of the answer may lie in the mood of the times across the border: the civil rights movement in the U.S. had posed serious challenges to the status quo, and young Canadians were paying attention. Then Vietnam intensified the clash between citizens and government, just as the last of the war babies were leaving college and facing the prospect of being drafted.

Again, Canadians were paying attention. Moreover, our expanding school system was recruiting large numbers of well-educated young teachers and professors from the U.S. They brought with them a strong skepticism about politicians in general and governments in particular. The Socreds must have struck them as ignorant right-wingers.

That was unfair in many ways. W.A.C. Bennett's Socreds were not always right-wing: they created B.C. Ferries and B.C. Hydro, promoted Victoria College to a full university, built BCIT and Simon Fraser, and encouraged the founding of the first community colleges.

But as Fleming notes, that emphasis on post-secondary meant the Socreds paid less attention to the public schools. The early boomers were now in Grade 12. The late boomers (born before 1965) would keeping expanding the K-12 system until the late 1970s. With school districts pushing for more autonomy, and the ministry losing good people, conditions were ripe for a conflict between Socreds and teachers.

The age of decentralization

With the arrival of the Barrett New Democrats in 1972, Fleming argues, decentralization removed more power from the ministry and distributed it to parents, boards and teachers. Countless interest groups began to lobby for inclusion of their issues in the curriculum, while teachers demanded better pay, smaller class sizes, and less emphasis on testing as a gauge of learning.

In theory, the NDP was very much on the teachers' side. In practice, NDP governments ran afoul of the BCTF several times. The BCTF was becoming a powerful political force and a dangerous enemy.

Once back in power under Bill Bennett, the Socreds resumed their clashes with teachers. The battles climaxed with the 1983 restraint program, the teachers' walkout, and the approach to the brink of a general strike.

By now no one was dreaming of a return to the golden era. We have seen almost 30 years of trench warfare, with each side bringing up its young recruits on tales of the other side's outrages and atrocities. Fleming describes the recent decades concisely and fairly.

Contemplating the present state of affairs, Fleming writes: "Public schooling, for the most part, is dominated by an organizational triumvirate consisting of the education ministry, the BCSTA and the BCTF. Although rarely acting in concert, each of these organizations exhibits certain common characteristics. All are bureaucratic in nature, anti-visionary and unimaginative in outlook, prescriptive in behaviour, non-cooperative in manner, anti-technological in practice, and committed to the status quo."

An unstable status quo

That status quo, however, is increasingly unstable. Fleming notes that "Except for brief interludes caused by depression or war, public education evolved for nearly a century in a state of perpetual growth." Now, however, demographics and politics are working against the schools.

As Fleming points out, real power has migrated from the education ministry to the premier and the cabinet, who make decisions on political grounds. At the same time, the proportion of the young to the old continues to shrink. Old people vote; school children can't, and young voters don't. So funding will shift from public education to public health. This will give teachers and trustees plenty of talking points, but little comfort.

This demographic shift is nothing new. I was talking to educators about it back in the 1980s and '90s. My argument was that with fewer students, each of them was more valuable and deserved a bigger investment. They would have to graduate with high skill levels and find productive work. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to support themselves, plus the seniors, plus those with disabilities, plus the next generation of students.

Fleming doesn't suggest anything like that, but he does end his book with some provocative questions. Among them: "Will the influence of the three major educational organizations continue to dominate schooling, or will government allow new technologies, new agencies and other educational providers to re-shape the landscape of educational provision and to meet the educational demands of a new century?"

In other words, will government permit some new form of competition to our present public and private schools -- one that will equip students with solid literacy and numeracy skills, the ability to learn independently, and the motivation to do so? That could provoke the biggest school war of them all.

Thomas Fleming doesn't answer his questions, but the rest of us had better try to. They will assuredly be on an exam we can't afford to flunk.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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