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The Promise of the Present Moment

May 30, 2018 Dennis Shirley

Public education won’t survive in the current policy environment—and won’t even deserve to survive—unless it has champions. The most important of these have to be our students and their parents. These must insist that schools are well-funded and staffed by caring and competent professionals.

But there also needs to be broad and enthusiastic support from the broader society. Entrepreneurs, intellectuals and those who are well-educated in general have an outsized impact on policy. Their support needs to be consistent, vocal, well-coordinated and aggressive.

But educators and opinion leaders are too often slow to respond to threats to democratic, local public schooling. The new euphemism used by the enemies of public education today is “disruption.” It became a new change mantra when Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in 1997 published The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Christensen documented how technological giants lost out when computer engineers in their very own companies created incredibly inexpensive and efficient hard disk drives. Rather than embrace these new innovations, the companies sat on them until their very own engineers, frustrated with the lack of institutional responsiveness, departed and started phenomenally successful businesses of their own.

For Christensen, this is all great stuff. Disruption powers innovation forward. No tears should be shed for the technological behemoths whose downfall was caused by their failure to understand what was happening before their very eyes.

But schools have a different function in society than hard drive manufacturers. Schools should produce citizens who will be stewards of the environment. They should promote civility and acceptance of differences. They should teach children to protect the weak rather than just reward the strong.

To do these things, societies need civic engagement, intellectual argumentation and mutual respect. These things require careful cultivation. They are arts to be practiced. They are not disruptions to be deployed.

Alberta as a province and Canada as a nation are leaders in showing the world that public education can work in practice as well as in theory. Nowhere else do multicultural, democratically governed public schools work so well. But this is a birthright that can easily be squandered. This can happen when those inside the profession rest on their laurels, kick back and do things the way they’ve always been done. The birthright can also be squandered when those outside of the profession leap on every perceived shortcoming to slowly strangle schools of the resources and moral support they need to prosper. A vicious circle of complacency on the one hand and sabotage on the other is all that is needed for public schooling to become a distant memory.

Can such things happen? Proof positive is provided by Chile, England, Sweden and parts of Australia and the U.S. These systems have fallen prey to an anachronistic ideological imperative to drive markets into every nook and cranny of their public schooling systems. To be sure, they’ve had plenty of disruption—but it has produced inequity and social upheaval without gains in achievement. These systems provide object lessons of policy failure. Their stalled reforms will be studied by change leaders for generations to come.

For the time being, Canada has provided a striking counter-example of how things can be done. Unlike many other high-performing systems, such as South Korea, Japan and Finland, Canada is a rich multicultural and multilingual mosaic. This makes its achievement all the more impressive. It may be that famously Canadian cultural traits of temperance, even-handedness and civility honed over generations have played important roles in providing the necessary bedrock to secure public education. These characteristics are in high demand today when bombast and bigotry have become such prominent features of the evening news in so many countries.

I congratulate my friends and colleagues in Alberta on the first 100 years of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. But now is no time for complacency. Every one of us has a role to play in protecting public education, spreading its blessings and securing its future. This work has to be more than sloganeering about curriculum transformation or more standards and accountabilities, most of which ignore the systemic obstacles to achieving equity in Alberta’s increasingly large and complex classrooms.

The Association cannot wait for governments to make change happen. Organizations like the ATA have a proud tradition of leading innovation and supporting excellence through a steadfast commitment to equity. I often think back to the many successes of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, a world-class program if there ever was one, and how it might be reconstituted to achieve progress on strategic priorities such as Indigenous education and student well-being. As well, I see the tremendous power of the Association and how it has been galvanized through international partnerships with schools and researchers in Finland, Norway, New Zealand and, soon, Iceland.

Nowhere is it written in stone that public school systems need to last forever. Now is the time to continue to step forth as proud champions of public education both in Alberta and internationally.


Dr. Dennis Shirley is a professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and the author of The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity.

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