Floundering at the polls and desperate to enact popular legislation, the NDP has released its Royal Commission Report on Learning.  The Interim’s education specialist takes a look at the underlying agenda of what could be Ontario’s last experience with Rae-inspired dogma

Enough time has passed now for the Royal Commission Report on Learning to have had a chance to filter through the minds of the media analysts and the corporate boardrooms of Ontario and down to the general public.

In all the talk about the report so far, very little has been mentioned about those who should be more directly affected by all the changes, the children.  What impact will it have on those within the education system and those about to enter?

The Royal Commission’s 550 page report on learning, the result of nearly two years of meetings, makes 167 recommendations.  Along with related documents such as, “The Common Curriculum” and “Yours, Mine and Ours,” it sets out proposals for what should or should not be done to Ontario’s children and those who look after them.  It speaks of accountability and proposes measures requiring expansive bureaucracies to oversee.

There is little sense of joy of life in any of the pages, because these pages are less about educating our children to reach their full potential, than they are bout politics and social order.  The report appears to take a stance in opposition to traditional institutions.  Its vehicle is the “Four Engines of Change,” Information Technology, Early Childhood Education, Community Education, Teachers.

Each “Engine” encapsulates part of the Commission’s overall ideology.  Starting from the premise that current educational and social traditions are not working the way they should, the Report on Learning sets out to rework them entirely.  As Commission Chairman Gerald Caplan says, “We’re convinced that each of these four engines, by themselves, and particularly as they interact together can so change the nature of the educational enterprise so that things will never be the same.”

The “Engine of Information Technology” develops on the idea that societies world-wide are experiencing a radical departure from traditional ways of looking at things.  In the Middle Ages the coming of print caused a radical readjustment of society away from the oral tradition of ancient times.

Today’s global society has turned from print into the era of electronic media.  Society must once again be adjusted so that it can cope and compete.  The citizens of Ontario must fit the needs of a global market if the province and its people are to survive as a cohesive entity.  Where technology leads, education must follow, or else Ontario will decline into a third-world backwater.

So how does the report put ideology into action?  First of all, the Commission appears to narrow the significance of new information technology to one area – computers.  Their plan: get more computers in schools; support software development; partner the schools with computer firms; get students on the Internet.  Some may find it difficult to see a real plan of action or program direction here.

One might ask how many years after the invention of Movable type did printing presses make it into the schools.  Apart from some typewriters and copiers that began showing up in the schools over the last century, the first real presence of printing machines happened at the arrival of the computerized word processors less than twenty years ago.  Even pencils and pens are relatively late arrivals to the classroom.  Their value and the value of all these devices are as tools.

The telephone is as much a part of the world of information technology as a computer.  It is the rare person, indeed, who doesn’t know how to use one.  What is essential to be taught is how to make the most of the information gathered in its use.  Is a computer really any more important than a ball-point pen to the development of the mind?

Technocrats who have staked their future on computers, science fiction stories, and befuddled beginners or non-users of computers, form the triad that seems to have sent society off in a mad scramble to gain control of the computer before it takes over.  In reality, as the technological curve climbs more steeply and new developments follow rapidly, accessing global information network will be no more complicated than turning on a TV or dialing a phone.  There may be Media courses in school, but one rarely hears of “TVs in Education” or “Telephones in Education” although they are equally a part of information technology.  Is this Engine on track?

The “Engine of Early Childhood Education” is founded on the premise that institutions can teach better.  The Commission recognizes that early childhood is the time of life when most learning goes on.  It also points out that social and cultural pressures have so affected the early learning environment as to put the children of Ontario at a disadvantage.  This is built on the idea that most parents have, in one way or another, strayed from the traditional paths in which the very young were nurtured.

So, while extolling the virtue and value of the family as nurturer, the Commission seeks to bring a form of equity to the condition of children from all the possible family structures around today.  In the words of the Commission CD ROM, “What is incontrovertible according to the experts in child development is that kids who are exposed to quality pre-school preparation, whether in or out-side of the home, whether from advantaged or disadvantaged situations, almost invariably have better developed language and cognitive skills.”

There is little doubt that the pervasive hand of the education system will make its way into the most fundamental function of the family.  One cannot help but agree with the concept of providing assistance to parents of pre-schoolers.  However, it must be assistance that is offered.  The danger with informal structure is that it tends to get formalized with repeated use.  Global principles of education are easily swallowed up in politics and ideology.  There is great potential for misuse when governments seek to promote their own political ideas.

If the school is to incorporate within itself the Day Care of the future, it would be a short step further to have it take on the role of surrogate parent.  Then, the ethics and values of the state would become the ethics and values of the children in its care.

The traditional family, already under considerable pressure from social and political ideologies, would find its values, personal morality and ethics severely eroded.  These will become things to put on at the church door, and leave behind in the pews when the service is over.  Of course, it would be wrong and unfair to the Commission on Learning to suggest that it has such a radically threatening objective, but it is illustrative of a weakness inherent in ideology.  The non practical nature of pure ideology makes its practical application very accessible to manipulation.

The “Engine of Community Education” has its foundation in the terms of the African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The Commission believes that the child is a part of the community and is partly the responsibility of the community.  The community, then, becomes a partner in education with the school.

This puts the school in a special relationship with the community as sits central focus.  In the words of the Commission report: “Not only will schools open their facilities to the community, but they will also become the hub for all services that assist families in child-raising.  Schools in this vision are the physical centres, thus simplifying access to a wide variety of social, health and recreational programs.”

Three objectives come under the broad heading of Community Education.  The first of these is that local businesses participate more in the educational activities of the school.  Among other things, this means providing some of their outdated equipment to the schools and participating directly in programs in a contributional or even instructional role.  The Commission also suggests business should develop “family-friendly policies which assure time for employees who are parents to maintain regular contact with the schools their children attend.”

The second aspect of community education is to establishment of a more structured interaction between schools and parents.  The parents will become more directly involved in the day-to-day operation of the school, while the school becomes more involved with parents through regular contact, and by offering a variety of parent education workshops.

Third, Community Education will be putting students and their families in direct contact with other community-based services.  This will see local doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health-related organizations become regular participants in the daily operation of the school.

There is a romantic vision here, founded no doubt in the above-quoted African proverb.  An African village is a tribal community, an extended family, the very thing that this Commission has set out to supplant.  The stake the African villagers have in their children is far different from that of the marketing manager of a locally-based, middle-sized company, or the neighbourhood insurance broker.

There is no central web of family and tribal relationships, no deeply-embedded set of collective motivations that seek the betterment of family and tribe.  Any community participation in an Ontario school will be driven by much different motives.  They will be more personal and polemic.

These personal and polemic motivations will, in large part, determine which members of the business and parent communities will seek to be involved in the day-to-day operation of the school.  This marks a fundamental weakness in the concept of Parent Councils, which the Commission has proposed as being the central decision maker for each school.

Many parents would have some reservations about the school opening its doors to community agencies which reflect ideas in opposition to their values and morals.  There may be some truth to the Commission’s claim that it is often difficult for parents to discuss the many issues confronting their children in today’s world.  While parents can offer personal and family values and morality concerning these issues, the school and the community agencies can really offer only general principles which may only add to the students’ confusion and put them in conflict with their parents and family.

The fourth “Engine of Change” is the teacher.  The other engines, the report says, won’t run without the teachers.  The teacher can be the driving wheel or the fly in the ointment.  The conclusion of the report id that there are significant changes needed here.  There are two thrusts to this part of the report.  One deals with the way teachers are developed in Ontario.  The other deals with the professionalization of the teaching professionals.

The Commission recommends setting up a College of Teachers that will have a similar role in the development and direction of teaching as other professional colleges such as the College of Physicians, College of Engineers and the Law Society do.  This College would set standards for its members, investigate complaints and develop a regular recertification process.  Unlike the other professional colleges, the College of Teachers will be made up of members and other stake-holders from the community-at-large, including a student.

To prepare new teachers for the changing society and information technology, the teacher training program will be extended to two years beyond a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree.  Trainee-teachers will put in more practice time in the classroom.

More paraprofessional instructors will be introduced into the schools, to take over specific aspects of programs such as Physical Education, Art, and so on.  This means that ultimately there will be fewer teachers in the schools.  These teachers, along with the principal and related educational staff have, as the Commission states, “an expanded role.”

It appears that a good deal of student learning will be received from instructors rather than teachers.  In a sense, teachers will be the education-specialists, directors and advisors for the instructors while focusing on specific academic areas such as language and mathematics.

Undoubtedly, there will be a specific training program for school instructors, perhaps a Community College level.  The majority of those doing the classroom work will be similar in training to the graduates of Normal Schools of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which took students with grade 12 diplomas and sent them out into the schools after a two-year training program.

There will be more provisions for bringing complaints against teachers and those displaying incompetency will be more likely to lose their certification.  It will, undoubtedly, also provide a forum for the chronically dissatisfied.

Among the 167 recommendations of the Commission, many are not clearly related to any one specific Engine of Change.  They deal with such diverse matters as anti-racism, anti-sexism and equity education, education of native teachers and reconstruction of school boards.  These are recommendations that discuss formation of a government office of Learning, Assessment and Accountability that will keep tabs on students and teachers, establish and administer standardized tests and provide guidelines for the educational system.

Together, these present a broad plan for the revision of education in Ontario.  They are certainly worthy of discussion and debate.  Taken as a whole, they make it difficult to form a cohesive evaluation and criticism given limits of space and time.