(Image Credit: SimonP via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
Throughout history, societies have succeeded by pushing the boundaries of knowledge. In light of this, the current trends in Canada’s education sector don’t augur well for our future success as a society.
MAKING THE CUT
Ontario measures the performance of its publicly funded education system via something called EQAO (short for Education Equality and Accountability Office) tests. In October 2022, it was reported that in the 2021-22 school year, only 47% of Grade 6 students in Ontario met the provincial standard in math, which was down from 50% in 2018-19. The drop was conveniently blamed on Covid. There hasn’t been much examination of this claim, which is at once unsurprising and disappointing. The unfortunate fact is that this drop is part of an ongoing trend.
In August 2019, CBC carried a story titled ‘Ontario elementary students’ math scores declining: EQAO’. When I saw the October 2022 report, I immediately remembered this earlier report, because I had covered that as a topic on the radio talk show that I was doing in 2019. This makes me wonder why the other people in the media didn’t make the same connection to it in 2022. According to the CBC story, 48% of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard for math during 2018-19 (note that this is different from the figure mentioned in the latest story; regardless, whether the number was 50% or 48% in 2018-19, there has certainly been a drop to 47% in 2021-22). The CBC story further says something that should get all concerned up in arms: that in 2009, some 61% of students in Grade 6 had met the provincial standard in math. So, in 13 years, we have gone from 61% to 47% of students performing adequately. Doing some quick math (heh), that is an almost 23% drop over 13 years. If this trend continues, then in 2035, more students will fail to meet the provincial standard in math than were successful in meeting it in 2009.
Saddeningly, the teachers’ union has often demanded that the EQAO testing be done away with altogether. As the Toronto Start noted in an editorial in 2018, “From the very start of standardized testing in Ontario schools two decades ago, teachers have strongly opposed the idea”. My view is that the testing is a tool to keep the education system accountable. But the teachers’ (or at least their unions’) view seems to be that if evidence shows that the system is not working as it should, then the correct response is to stop collecting the evidence.
Let me be clear about my opinion here: even the number of 61% is abysmally low. Let us remember that we are NOT comparing our children’s performance with some super-high-achieving jurisdiction like Singapore or China. We are comparing it with the standard that we ourselves agreed was desirable for our children. When more than HALF of our children fail to achieve *our own* standard, it should suffice to set off alarm bells all over the place. Instead, what we get is a deafening silence; each time over these 13 years, the latest EQAO report got talked about for a few days (or a couple of weeks at the most), and then we moved on to other, more pressing concerns such as Senator Mike Duffy’s claim for housing allowance or Prime Minister Trudeau’s socks etc.
About 12 or 15 years ago, one of the catchphrases in politics was to ‘prepare our students for the jobs of the 21st century’. The century was young, so there was definitely an element of ‘aarambh-shoora’ (= those who are brimming with enthusiasm at the start of an endeavor) at play. Now that we are nearly a quarter of the way into that century, however, that enthusiasm seems to have all but evaporated; you hardly ever hear a politician utter that catchphrase. Instead, the political discourse has veered off in the direction of instituting some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Not just one but TWO separate Bills were tabled in the parliament (Bill S-233 sponsored by Senate Kim Pate and Bill C-223 sponsored by NDP MP Leah Gazan). Apart from the once-in-a-lifetime coincidence of two separate Bills on the same topic being introduced with identical wording to the last comma and period, the most striking aspect of the Bills is the misgivings that they have caused in some sections of Canadian society, including (unfounded) apprehensions as to their ’real’ objective (read: hidden agenda) and impact on existing policies such as CPP, EI etc. I have discussed these Bills in detail in my article ‘Our Money Tree’. I would like to add to that commentary by saying that these Bills represent a paradigm shift in our thinking. In a nutshell, instead of putting our heads together to chart a course for our children to ‘prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century’, the focus in political circles has shifted to preparing our society for widespread joblessness. ‘The establishment’ has given up on the dream of ‘the jobs of the 21st century’; the most common occupation that they expect Canadians to have is to be on the dole. It is therefore unsurprising that the education sector is being indifferent to the relentless decline in students’ academic performance. One no longer sees a career as a teacher being one about shaping tomorrow’s leaders and winners, but rather as an opportunity to become a member of a union that has the political muscle to wrest ever more of public money for its members.
What are ‘the jobs of the 21st century’ now? A famous saying (variously ascribed to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Yogi Berra et al) comes to mind: It is difficult to predict, especially the future. Therefore, the most important teaching that we can impart to our children can be distilled down to this: Students should be learning how to learn. With rapid technological change causing unforeseen industries / products / services to rise from out of the blue and then going out of existence a couple of decades later (think of the fax machine), and with the same evolving technologies causing a fundamental change in how even more traditional jobs are done, more than half the students failing to meet our own standards of academic achievement in math is bound to be detrimental not just to the students individually but also to the Canadian society collectively. To put it bluntly, as a society, Canada has been losing not just its competitive edge but also its competitive potential on the world stage exactly at the same time when global competition is ratcheting up way beyond what we have seen in our lifetimes, and perhaps in generations.
POISONING THE WELL
The question is, how did we get here? I mean, apart from public apathy, or worse, hyper-partisanship. Here, I am reminded of the Gujarati proverb that “Only what is in the well can be put in the watering trough”. I am sensing a distinct trend to get teachers away from their core function and in the direction of ideological agendas. The occasional move to reverse the trend is met with fierce resistance, as we saw when Ontario introduced a math test for teachers; the issue led to a protracted legal tussle between the government and the teachers’ union. The lower court ruled against making this test mandatory and the government appealed that verdict. The contrast between this battle on one hand and the Alberta NDP’s election promise to introduce a Somali curriculum is telling. The party’s webpage itself says that “Newcomers from African nations are the fastest growing population in Alberta with most coming from Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia”. Given this declaration, it is a mystery as to what the immigrants from Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia have done wrong to be excluded from the enlightened generosity of Alberta NDP.
Could it be that they haven’t settled in select ridings en masse? The promise is certainly emanating from an unabashedly cynical political calculus: the ethnicity that congregates in important ridings will get extra ‘consideration’ from politicians. Hidden inside this promise is the possibility of preferred employment as well; non-Somalis are unlikely to be qualified to teach a ‘Somali curriculum’. In a nutshell, this ‘curriculum’, if it comes into being, will be a jobs program for a specific ethnic community. What it will do to prepare the Somali-Canadian children in Alberta for ‘the jobs of the 21st century’ is neither explained nor asked.
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
Teachers can only teach what is in the curriculum – or at least, that was my naïve belief until recently. In reality, there are pressures on teachers from elsewhere (including from other teachers). Two of the main entities that are influential in this regard are the teachers’ unions and the school boards. In fairness, the unions’ primary duty is to secure the best possible deal for the teachers. It is the school boards that are tasked with creating the best possible system – within the boundaries of the curriculum and applicable rules – to prepare the teachers who can, in turn, prepare their students for the future. How are we doing in this regard?
Former high school teacher and prominent Twitter personality Chanel Pfahl tweeted the image of a slide from a mandatory training session for “literacy” coaches (I assume this is jargon for ‘teachers’) at the York Region District School Board. The image is worth reproducing here:
Now read the center column carefully and ponder these questions: (a) Are the institutions of education that have existed in non-white societies for millennia also ‘instrumental tools for maintaining and furthering the ideology of white supremacy’? (b) Does ‘dismantling the structures and systems of white supremacy’ involve disbanding all the school boards and sending all the ‘literacy coaches’ home, together with any and all administrative and other staff? (c) Why are the people who are charged with preparing the future leaders and winners being told to ACCEPT these statements without question? After all, leading and winning are impossible without a questioning mind. The people who are supposed to cultivate this questioning mind in each student are being told to accept something without question? And finally, (d) Has anyone even considered the impact of such a statement on the white ‘literacy coaches’ and students? How is it helpful to make such ideological (and unhinged) statements in an educational setting, no less, and then DEMAND that they be accepted without question?
THE LATEST BANDWAGON
Human beings are wired for figuring out (or to try to figure out) where their personal benefit lies. For all the talk of a widespread conspiracy to ‘destroy western civilization’, I believe that the vast majority of participants in these ideological crusades are doing so not with a clearly articulated desire – or even an inchoate one – to cause damage to the society that they are a member of and benefit handsomely from. My view is that they are merely prioritizing their anticipated personal gain, even when they are cognizant of the damage that it causes to their society at large. To be amply clear, this gain is not necessarily financial – it can be something as mundane as wanting to avoid conflict with those around oneself. We see this behaviour elsewhere as well, especially in politics.
One such ideological crusade unfolding in Canada (and parts of the US) now relates to the use / abuse of illegal drugs. Naturally, schools are not exempt from being made part of an ideological crusade (some might say that they are in fact among the natural targets), so it was only in the nature of things that we heard about a school in British Columbia handing out ‘safer snorting kits’. The key in the drugs arena of the crusades is to use the words ‘safe’ and ‘harm reduction’. Whether the approach taken does in fact introduce / enhance safety in an inherently unsafe activity, and whether it ends up reducing harm when the behaviour that is engaged in is harmful by definition, are subjects separate from this one. My focus here is on this approach being formally undertaken in and by the education system. Are we seeing an instance of ‘mission creep’ here? I believe so. We see this mission creep elsewhere as well, depending on which ideological ‘imperative’ happens to be trending at the moment. For example, some years ago, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) among students were in vogue, but now you don’t hear them about at all, because that fad has been superseded by transgenderism. It would be mistaken to believe, however, that the passing phases of the ‘flavour of the month’ ideological fads don’t create a lasting impact.
The most puzzling – indeed, shocking – aspect of GSA’s for me was that a student’s membership of a GSA was to be kept secret from their parents. This established a precedent that normalized the idea that children’s parents, and their wishes and decisions regarding their children, can be pushed aside in favour of other individuals who are assumed to be more concerned about and capable of ensuring a child’s well-being. This goes counter to all of human history – recorded or otherwise. But the precedent has been useful in the later ideological crusade of transgenderism, where a child can declare a different gender from their biological one and even assume a different name AT SCHOOL, unbeknownst to their parents. The GSA’s may have faded from public consciousness, but the precedent that they established has been continuously useful.
In my initial years in Canada, I started hearing (from the Liberal government that was in power in Ontario then, and its supporters) as to how teachers were ‘co-parents’. Once again, the analogy with the Arabic folk tale of ‘the Arab and the camel’ is apt. Just as the camel was fully inside the tent, leaving the Arab to shiver in the cold night outside in that fable, the ‘co-parents’ of yesteryear have usurped the role of the actual parents, who are left out in the cold, with ever-decreasing control over their children’s lives.
From my Indian cultural perspective, the idea of a teacher assuming the role of a parent is somewhat less problematic. Old Indian tales are replete with descriptions of children being sent for education to the ashram of some rishi (sage), and the guru and his wife (guru-maata; the word ‘maata’ means ‘mother’) were effectively the parents of their pupil for the duration of his study. But the defining difference between those stories and the situation that we have in Canada now is that both the guru and guru-maata were singularly focused on imparting the education that was going to be useful to their ward for performing their role in society, including the economic role. In today’s parlance, we may call it ‘the three R’s’. But as we saw in the first part of this article, today’s education system is failing abysmally at this – and that failure is worsening over time.
THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION
In Sanskrit, the words for ‘education’ and ‘knowledge’ have overlapping uses. Thus, a ‘student’ is ‘vidyaarthi’ (meaning ‘one whose objective is to gain knowledge’). Similarly, in Urdu, the word for ‘student’ is ‘taalib-e-ilm’, meaning ‘desirous of (or seeker of) knowledge’. In light of this cultural background, I am of the belief that our ‘education system’ is increasingly less and less about ‘knowledge’; instead, its two dominant characteristics are seeking financial advantage and spreading (ever-shifting) ideological agendas.
‘Knowledge’ can be broken down into two categories: it makes one a productive member of the society (and hence self-sufficient in terms of providing for themselves and their family) and it also makes one a well-rounded citizen, which is useful in participating in the policies and decisions that chart the society’s path for the future (which acquires an added significance in a democracy). As to the latter, whether knowing how to consume hard drugs ‘safely’ or internalizing the complex nuances of the transgenderism will make today’s children better citizens or not is something that only time can / will tell. But as to the former, it can be said without controversy that our ‘education’ system is failing to impart the required knowledge to our children. What makes this even more of a calamity is that collectively, we are not nearly as much exercised about it as we are about many other, less crucial matters. Students are applauded for going on ‘climate marches’ on Fridays, but teachers are not made answerable for those students’ worsening academic performance. Unless we change course, in a big way and quickly, our children will finally march into global irrelevance and oblivion.
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