Perspectives

Education as a Public Good

By Bernie Froese-Germain
October 4, 2012

A few years ago the CTF Work Group on Teaching Quality looked at the politics of language in education, specifically how the language of the neo-liberal agenda is used to marginalize both the teaching profession and the mission of public education. Often neo-liberal proponents use terms that co-opt our own language. Recently, the term teacherpreneur appears to have entered the lexicon, apparently signifying an approach to teaching that is in keeping with 21st century learning for a global market economy.

One way for teachers’ organizations to promote teacher beliefs is to consistently utilize language that reframes the agenda to their beliefs. For teachers’ organizations, this means focusing on the core values and mission of public education and the teaching profession to promote and foster the well-being and education of all children and youth.

This brief list of terms was developed as a starting point for the teaching profession to attempt to frame the dialogue around public education by creating and using common language:

  • investment in society through education versus an exclusive focus on the cost of education, education spending as a burden
  • education for active responsible citizenship, vs. education narrowly focussed on skills training and job preparation
  • student learning and development, vs. achievement in core academic subjects
  • classroom-based assessment, vs. large-scale assessment or standardized testing
  • shared responsibility, vs. test-based accountability
  • inclusive schools, vs. charter schools, private schools, ‘school choice’
  • self-directed professional learning, vs. teacher training, mandated professional development

Emphasizing the benefits of all public goods and services including public schools, to counter the harmful myopic focus on tax cuts and the burden of taxation, was also part of this exercise. While tax cuts reduce both the capacity to fund existing vital public services such as public schools and to create new services and programs (such as universal child care), with a subsequent erosion of living standards and quality of life, fair taxation is as they say the price we pay for civilized society.

To this list we could well add education as a public good, as a fundamental human right, vs. education as a marketable commodity.

In attempting to explain Canada’s educational success on the international scene, Hargreaves and Shirley (in their recent paper, The Far Side of Educational Reform) note that, “there’s obviously something special about Canada as a nation”, and that includes generally valuing the notion of the public good:

It’s not this or that province’s recent policy that makes Canada such a strong educational performer, but a social fabric and long-term interconnected policy approach that values education and teachers, welcomes and integrates immigrants, prizes the public good, and doesn’t abandon the weak in its efforts to become economically stronger.[1]

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Joel Westheimer, this notion of the public good is being eroded, not just in education but in other sectors of society.

CTF recently invited Dr. Westheimer to provide his perspective on “Education as a Public Good”. An academic (Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa) whose focus of interest is democracy and citizenship, he is also a member of CTF’s Panel of Academic Experts. His “quick notes” comments which follow are insightful and useful in informing this discussion:

  1. The historic purpose of schools was NOT job training and should NOT be job training today even though we’ve pretty much lost most other language when talking about the purposes of schooling. Public schools were always about the democratic project of the public good. And while the work of preparing public citizens for a democracy must include more than the schools, the schools are the public institution best positioned to affect the vast majority of young people.
  2. The public interest in schools should be far more evident to people than it currently is. Voting is down. Political participation is down. The biggest declines are among youth and young adults. Lots of kids volunteer but far fewer get involved in our democratic institutions. Volunteers are nice, no question about that. But totalitarian dictatorships like volunteers too. Democracies need more than nice people who volunteer. Democracy is not self-winding. As political theorist Sheldon Wolin observed, citizens in a democracy – both young and old – need to be taught to “know and value what it means to participate in and be responsible for the care and improvement of our common and collective life.”
  3. There is a very real and very dangerous growing animosity towards teachers – see Wisconsin to our South, but also here in Canada. This is not something we should assume will go away. Teachers are easy targets and as the media and the general public think more and more that schools are simply a consumer service (job training, customers, etc.) rather than a critically important public institution for the common good, the more they are susceptible to ignorant, malicious and dangerous accusations of teacher laziness, etc.
  4. Lastly, the slow erosion of a notion of "public" and "public good" is of course not limited to schools. It’s a growing threat to Canada’s historic embrace of the common good in all kinds of institutions including health care, childcare, transportation, community centres, etc. The small wedge of privatizing this or that service quickly translates into a decline in commitments to the kind of public engagement and collective endeavours that have so far made Canada an envy of many around the world.

Canada’s historic embrace of the common good” is another way of describing our national social contract, a Canadian Policy Research Networks report on Canada’s social contract and public opinion found that, while our top policy priorities are social in nature (education, health care, unemployment, poverty), Canadians “are less committed to government and state solutions to problems.”

Canadians’ top priorities tend to be social ones, such as health care, education, unemployment, and child poverty. When asked directly, Canadians are more likely to say that “more generous social programs” should be a high priority than ensuring that the government “interferes as little as possible with the free market.” Most think we should reinvest in social programmes ahead of cutting taxes. However, while Canadians have deep commitments to the social programmes of the Canadian social contract, there is less commitment to “government” or “the state” in their value structure. One should not misinterpret support for health care and education as support for “statist” solutions. http://www.cprn.org/documents/15075_en.PDF

While most of Westheimer’s assertions may seem self-evident to us – fundamental aspects of public education we take for granted – the fact that we need to rearticulate and reframe these issues to a broader public is indicative of the success of the right wing agenda in so fundamentally altering the education debate for its own ideological ends.

Also, Westheimer’s comments about the connection between public schools, citizenship and democracy take on added meaning in the current context of the federal government’s silencing of public debate in Canada on critical issues like poverty and inequality. As Baker Collins notes, the government is accomplishing this by abolishing information that might inform debate (e.g. weakening the long form census; eliminating the National Council of Welfare); cutting funding to numerous groups who might use such data to speak out about poverty, inequality, human rights violations and other issues; and generally cultivating “a political climate that is disdainful of public debate and of those who seek to stimulate it.”[2]

Teacher unions have been and continue to be strong supporters of public education including its role in promoting the public good. They are often in the forefront of campaigns to defend public education. The teacher voice on this issue is critically important at a time when public education is under attack/pressure. (Witness former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s questioning the usefulness of public schools during his campaign.)

For example Education International’s policy paper on education, “Building the Future through Quality Education”, prepared for the 6th EI World Congress in July 2011, states that:

This policy challenges explicitly the narrow, instrumentalist view of education as solely teaching students to become skilled employees. Instead, it argues for a perspective on education that serves both the values of the society at local and global levels, as well as cultural, democratic, social, economic and environmental needs. It recognises that education is a human right and a public good in its own right, enabling people at all stages in their lives to achieve their maximum potential and to better understand themselves and their role and relationships. Education is also a key means for the transmission, analysis and application of knowledge and experience, and plays a central role in the creation of new knowledge through research and innovation. Its role is broader than the mechanistic and instrumental role that many proponents of market forces and “customer-provider” models acknowledge.[3]

At the April 2012 CTF Board of Directors meeting, discussions took place on the topic of “Education as a Public Good”. This discussion was framed by three questions:

  • What is at the heart of our message to society?
  • What argument will resonate with society?
  • What is the role of CTF / of the CTF Member organizations?

The CTF teacher belief statements, drawn from the CTF Vision for Public Education Statement approved by the Board in Nov. 1999 and updated in 2012, were used to inform the discussion.

The following are core considerations from these discussions.

What is at the heart of our message to society?

  • The key message from the teacher beliefs is that “a strong publicly funded education system is essential to the preservation and promotion of democracy”.
  • The goal of public education is to prepare all students for active participation in society.

What resonates with society?

  • Access to public education for the betterment of society was part of the social contract entered into by Canadians and their government. It is a democratic right of every child to have access to fully funded public education. Some should not receive more than others.
  • The Canadian education system is working and that education funding is being used responsibly.

What is the CTF policy supporting beliefs of Canadian teacher organizations?

A strong publicly funded public education system, rooted in the principles of universality, equity responsiveness and accountability, is essential to the preservation and promotion of a democratic society working for the common good.

Therefore, we, the teachers of Canada, believe:

  • that the best interests of all children and youth must guide each decision that society and its institutions make on their behalf.
  • that the development of educational policy should be founded in the belief that public education is a public good for the whole of society.
  • that Canada must honour its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to make children this nation’s highest priority.
  • that a responsible, knowledgeable, committed teaching profession is essential to the provision of quality public education.
  • that teachers must have sufficient autonomy to apply their professional judgement.
  • that good schools are supported by adequate public resources that are collected and distributed fairly.
  • that the conditions under which teaching and learning take place have a direct impact on what teachers and students can achieve together.
  • that the goals society sets for students and schools must be challenging but attainable.
  • that there are many forms of success for schools and students including personal, social, academic, cultural and vocational. This requires varied approaches to evaluating the extent to which schools and students achieve success.
  • that the school curriculum be designed to prepare students to become caring responsible active citizens.
  • that schools must be governed by people who are elected by, and accountable to the public.
  • that change in schools is natural and healthy provided it is based on sound research and reasoning and in consultation with teachers.
  • that lifelong learning is a right for all citizens and that programs developed should be universal, accessible and adequately funded.


[1] http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Research-Library/Report_EducationReform2012_EN_web.pdf

[2] http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/article/712043--a-policy-plan-to-hide-poverty-inequality

[3] http://www.ei-ie.org/en/websections/content_detail/5741

Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 238,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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