Perspectives

Character education and social justice > Standardized Tests

By Cassandra Hallett
June 29, 2015

As I write this article, I am also preparing to attend the World Education Forum as part of the Education International (EI) delegation. Member organizations of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and teachers across the country can feel proud of the fact that CTF’s perspective is regularly sought on many topics relevant to quality inclusive publicly funded public education, at home and abroad. While at the Forum, one of the presentations I will make pertains to Character Education, so here is some CTF thinking on this topic.

Education systems that are increasingly driven by standardized tests cannot nurture well-rounded students[i]. How could pages of multiple-choice tests prepare children and youth to conduct themselves in caring, inclusive, equitable, and just ways? What types of experiences does a testing environment provide that would nurture caring, inclusivity, and equity in students?

Our public school system in Canada is the cornerstone of a national ethic of caring, compassion and equity, which has contributed to the social cohesion we enjoy. Here I must pause though, in referring to social cohesion, I need to also acknowledge the inequities that continue in Canadian society, particularly the appalling status of many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada who currently do not enjoy social and economic conditions or quality education comparable to non-Aboriginal Canadians. This is a national disgrace. It is also, however, a problem that may, over time, be resolved by a citizenry whose public education is about more than academics and is rooted in character education and social justice.

Across Canada, and at CTF, we share many core values regarding education. In fact, our deep commitment to character education dates back decades before the actual term was coined. We have long been committed to ensuring teaching and learning is “student-centered”, is focused on developing the “whole child”, and encourages each student to realize his or her full potentialacademically, socially, culturally, emotionally, and physically.

The CTF teacher belief statements include the following declaration:

  • that the school curriculum is designed to prepare students to become caring, responsible and active citizens[ii].

And CTF policy on Curriculum[iii] clearly articulates an emphasis on character education, with statements emphasizing the need for curricula to:

  • be broad in scope and holistic in nature
  • promote, support, enhance and model equity and respect for diversity
  • be designed to prepare students to become caring, responsible, and participatory members of society

Policy from teacher organizations across Canada[iv] includes clear language regarding the crucial importance of character education and an emphasis on social justice throughout publicly funded public education. Our definition of quality includes character education. In this era of neo-liberalism with the increasing privatization and commercialization of school systems, publicly funded public education is being undermined and curriculum is being narrowed based on a utilitarian and exploitative view of schools and their purpose. What does this mean for children and for who they become? What type of society will develop from such a narrow focus?

Teacher organizations are among the strongest defenders and promoters of universal high quality inclusive publicly funded public education. While some provincial and territorial governments[v] encourage character education, none has yet recognized that a teacher’s ability to nurture such social development is seriously compromised when the outcome of standardized tests is deemed to be more important than other aspects of teaching and learning. Multiple-choice tests do not teach compassion, care, empathy, social justice, or other essential components of character. Pedagogy that includes critical thinking and collaboration amongst students, for example, does develop such characteristics.

The CTF Imagineaction[vi] program is a student-driven social action initiative designed to nurture individual responsibility necessary for the development of socially just citizenship through engagement with our communities. The six Imagineaction themes: Connect, Engage, Thrive, Lead, Live, and Care encourage students to develop positive relationships; participate actively in their communities; take care of health and wellness; develop leadership skills; act as environmental stewards; and take action to eliminate poverty. Find out more about this social justice program.

Across our vast nation, there are many examples of teachers and teacher organizations focusing on character education. Along with our sister organizations across the globe and our global union, Education International, the CTF will continue to call on governments at home and abroad to step away from narrow notions of curricula, from an emphasis on standardized tests and instead to embrace a more holistic approach to education rooted in developing each student’s character.

Our future as a caring society starts there.


[i] You can’t get to ‘there’ from ‘here’: Education as if learning and teaching matter, Bernie Froese-Germain
www.ctf-fce.ca/Research-Library/Educationasiflearningandteachingmatter_Dec16_2009final.pdf (PDF – 48.6 KB)

[ii]  www.ctf-fce.ca/en/Pages/About/we-believe.aspx

[iii] 8.1. Curriculum must be broad in scope and holistic in nature in order to meet the needs of children, community and the larger society.
8.2. Curriculum must reflect realistic expectations based on knowledge of child development.
8.3. Curriculum must promote, support, enhance and model equity and respect for diversity.
8.4. Curriculum must be designed to prepare students to become caring, responsible and participatory members of society.
www.ctf-fce.ca/Documents/Handbook/CTF-Handbook.pdf (PDF – 1.02 MB)

[iv] See for example:

Alberta Teachers’ AssociationThe Mission of Public Education / A Vision for Public Education: Public education is the cornerstone of democracy.  It must be founded on a commitment to educate all children well.  Public education must foster and support the intellectual, social, physical, emotional and spiritual development of each child.
www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ATA/Publications/Albertas-Education-System/Vision%20and%20Mission%20for%20Public%20Eudcation.pdf (PDF – 186 KB)

Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation1.4 Goals of Publicly Funded Education (from the STF Governance Handbook)
(c) Publicly funded education must shape and enrich the character and life opportunities of each student.
(d) The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation supports the curriculum-related Goals of Education for Saskatchewan (1984), as established by the provincial Ministry responsible for PreK-12 education through a public consultation process.  These goals affirm a student-centred, broadly based understanding of education which will prepare students to become knowledgeable, caring and responsible citizens.
https://www.stf.sk.ca/portal.jsp?Sy3uQUnbK9L2RmSZs02CjVy0w7ZkI/ks6g2u00gzAtsk=F#https://www.stf.sk.ca/portal.jsp?Sy3uQUnbK9L2RmSZs02CjV/LfyjbyjsxsJmeY8rEcj/I=F

Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ AssociationWhen You Speak for Children... OECTA Position Papers, 2013 – see section on “Learning goes beyond the basics.

New Brunswick Teachers’ AssociationCode of Professional Conductthe Code is based on a number of principles including the following (from the NBTA Members’ Handbook):
- Teachers shall regard as their first obligation the student’s physical, social, moral and educational growth.
  - Teachers have regard for the dignity, liberty and integrity of students under their supervision and endeavour to convey to students an understanding of their own worth.
http://www.nbta.ca/resources/hand_book/NBTA_Handbook.pdf (PDF – 774 KB)

British Columbia Teachers’ Federationamong the goals of the BCTF (from the Members’ Guide to the BC Teachers’ Federation)
- To help ensure that public schools provide for the continued intellectual, physical, social, and emotional growth and development of each individual.
https://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/public/AboutUs/MembersGuide/guide.pdf (PDF – 2.03 MB)

[v] See for example:

Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K–12, Ontario Ministry of Education, June 2008.
www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/literacy/booklet2008.pdf (PDF – 1.16 MB)

The Heart of the Matter: Character and Citizenship Education in Alberta Schools, Alberta Education, 2005.
education.alberta.ca/teachers/resources/cross/heart-of-the-matter/

Toronto District School BoardCharacter Development
www.tdsb.on.ca/ElementarySchool/Theclassroom/CharacterDevelopment.aspx

[vi] https://www.imagine-action.ca/

Cassandra Hallett is the Secretary General of 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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