Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part One

The following is a critical look at the reforms proposed and implemented in Lakeshore School Division, in the province of Manitoba (I worked for this Division as a French teacher from 2008 until 2012). Such reforms illustrate the extent to which school rhetoric is rampant in schools these days. You would not, however, know it if you read social-democratic or social reformist articles–most of the authors talk about defending “public education this” and “public education that” without ever engaging into inquiry about the adequacy of such public education.

On December 9, 2014, in EdCan Network, Leanne Peters, Janet Martell and Sheila Giesbrecht published an article titled “Re-imagine Lakeshore: Design, Education and Systems Change” (see https://www.edcan.ca/articles/re-imagine-lakeshore/). At the time, Leanne Peters was assistant superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, Janet Martell was the superintendent and Sheila Giesbrecht was Student Success Consultant, Manitoba Education. In essence, they were all unelected (appointed) school bureaucrats.

It is full of school rhetoric that the left should criticize.

School Rhetoric of Representatives of a Public Employer

In December 2012, Superintendent Janet Martell laid out a challenge to the school division. She told staff and board that “we were no longer meeting the needs of the students in our classrooms and we need to do something dramatically different.” Teachers were working hard and they wanted the best for the students, but we just weren’t having success.

School Rhetoric, or Putting Words into Teachers’ Mouths: Ignoring the Employee Status of Teachers

The teachers agreed and we embarked on the process of “Re-imagine Lakeshore.”

Teachers are employees and thus subject to the economic pressure and influence of their employer. Did they really “agree” with this, or did they comply with this assessment? If people are coerced economically, is their “agreement” really agreement? (See my post   “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)  for the view that employees are economically coerced. See also Employers as Dictators, Part One).

The Re-imagine Lakeshore process was designed to examine current practice and imagine new ways to improve practice. The division collaborated with one of our co-authors, Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht of Manitoba Education, who laid out a design-based school improvement process to help guide Lakeshore’s work. Teachers listened with extreme interest as the design process unfolded.

What evidence that the teachers listened with “extreme interest?” Ms. Martell provides no evidence We are supposed to just believe–on faith–that such extreme interest existed.

Phase 1: Understand (December 2012 – January 2013)

To begin this work, teachers came together to understand their divisional context.

As employees, teachers “come together” by means of an external contractual process of employment, with the unity of the workers not being due to their coming together and willing a common goal, but through the will of the employer defining the goal independently of them. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1, page 451:

They [the workers] enter into relations with the capitalist [or public employer], but not with each other. Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital [or the public employer]. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital [or a public employer]. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital [or public employer].

Belonging to a union may modify this situation (depending on the unity of the workers in their wills to achieve common  objectives or goal), but it does not by any means radically change such a situation. For instance, Lakeshore Teachers’ Association, the union for the teachers, pursued certain goals (such as obtaining two paid personal days in their collective agreement), but the establishment of the general goals of Lakeshore School Division does not form part of the voluntary deliberative process of the teachers and other workers.

One specific goal–defined by the school bureaucracy and not by teachers and other workers–was evidently the integration of computer technology into teaching practices:

Teachers responded to surveys about their ability to integrate technology into their lessons and provided data around the teaching strategies they regularly employed in their classrooms.

Who determined that the integration of technology was vital (really meaning “computers”–as if technology and computers were synonymous)? Further, did the teachers voluntarily provide data? If they provided no data, would they face any negative consequences?

One general goal of Lakeshore School Division is “student success.” What does Ms.Martell mean by success? We await with enthusiasm what that may be.

School Rhetoric of Success Defined According to Quantitative Graduation Rates–Nothing Else

Teachers worked through their school and catchment area data, graduation rates.

It is, of course, necessary to determine the present situation if you are going to specify the problem and offer relevant solutions. However, we see here an implicit assumption of what “success” means–graduation rates. Presumably, if all students graduated, then there would be substantial success. If they all graduated within four years (grades 9 to 12), then there would be 100 percent success, presumably.

We can compare such a goal with the goal of having every individual student developing their potentialities in diverse ways (physical, emotional, aesthetic (capacity to enjoy art), artistic (capacity to produce art), kinesthetic, mathematical, scientific, empathetic and so forth) to the maximum of their abilities. From John Dewey (1916/2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pages 186-187:

If what was said earlier about originality of thought seemed overstrained, demanding more of education than the capacities of average human nature permit, the difficulty is that we lie under the incubus of a superstition. We have set up the notion of mind at large, of intellectual method that is the same for all. Then we regard individuals as differing in the quantity of mind with which they are charged. Ordinary persons are then expected to be ordinary. Only the exceptional are allowed to have originality. The measure of difference between the average student and the genius is a measure of
the absence of originality in the former. But this notion of mind in general is a fiction. How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning. Mind, individual method, originality (these are convertible terms) signify the quality of purposive or directed action. If we act upon this conviction, we shall secure more originality even by the conventional standard than now develops. Imposing an
alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional. And measuring originality by deviation from the mass breeds eccentricity in them. Thus we stifle the distinctive quality of the many, and save in rare instances (like, say, that of Darwin) infect the rare
genius with an unwholesome quality.

Graduation rates are quantitative in the first instance and, in addition, are quantitative in a second instance since in order for a student to graduate, the student must have–comparatively–received a passing (quantitative) grade. For a critique of the assessment of students according to grades or marks, see  The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services.

The power to define “student success” is hidden by the use of apparently scientific words, such as “explore”:

They explored divisional successes and examined ways in which the teachers modeled exemplary practice. Finally, the community responded to a student success survey and helped to further define the “successful student” and the “successful school.” Teachers, administrators, students and the community collaborated to develop common understanding around the character of Lakeshore School Division.

Exploration requires the freedom to explore–to search, think and define problems freely. Being employees, where is there evidence that teachers freely explored issues? Further, who defined “divisional successes?” If the school bureaucracy define it in one way and teachers in another way, how is the conflict resolved?

Who defined what “student success is?” And how? There is the claim that “teachers, administrators, students and the community collaborated to develop common understanding”–but under the dictatorship, of course, of the school bureaucracy, which represents the employer. Participation is hardly equal among the different “partners” (for the idea that employers are dictators, see  Employers as Dictators, Part One).

Defining Success at the Micro Level But Ignoring Problems at the Macro Level

Phase 2: Problemate (February – March 2013)

During the second phase, teachers worked to describe the specific challenges faced within their school. Using the narrative and quantitative data collected during the Understand Phase, schools created a “problemate statement” to define what they wanted to improve within their own school. For example, one school’s statement was: “To raise the bar and close the gap for every child.” The process of understanding and creating a problem statement was difficult. Developing a problem statement meant that both successes and challenges had to be faced head-on. Schools continued to dig deeper during this phase and were challenged to work with open mindsets. Each school worked to create a focused design challenge that they wished to address through this school improvement process.

There are undoubtedly always problems that any school will face that are unique to that school: hence “teachers worked to describe the specific challenges faced within their school.” However, are such problems to be solved by a school, or must larger social structures be changed to address certain problems? For example, Ashern Central School can be characterized as similar to many inner-city schools in Winnipeg: the level of income of many parents is limited. Defining improvement in any school is purely reformist and will never address many of the problems in schools–ranging from an alienating curriculum that focuses on “academic learning” at the expense of the lived bodily experience of many students–to defining success purely in terms of “graduation rates” that involves quantitative measurement of “success” through grading practices (marks or grades).

Phase 3: Ideate (April – June 2013)

During the third phase teachers worked to develop new ways of approaching the design challenges they developed in the second phase. Working in cross-divisional cohorts, they identified 14 common themes and challenges based on the schools’ problem statements. These included technology integration, instructional strategies, whole student approaches, relationships, parental involvement, and facilities. Teachers gathered on their own time to conduct research, share ideas and look at ways to enhance their own and divisional practices. During this phase teachers worked to extend their professional knowledge base, skills and ideas. They also worked to explore new ideas and strategies.

It is interesting that there is no mention of the curriculum being a common problem (for a critique of the oppressive nature of school curriculums, see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services). It is probably assumed as something fixed over which teachers have no control. They thus probably focused on problems that they could immediately control at the micro level. Their own activity was already likely delimited to defining and searching for problems as defined by the school hierarchy (bureaucracy). That the school system might itself be a problem never arises here, of course.

As for teachers meeting on their own time–probably true–teachers do work a lot, in general. However, some of this is due to the nature of the work–and some due to implicit hierarchical pressure to do so. It is difficult to separate what is freely done outside school time and what is done out of fear of retaliation by management. See the above section “School Rhetoric, or Putting Words into Teachers’ Mouths: Ignoring the Employee Status of Teachers.”

School Rhetoric and Educational Research

During this time, Lakeshore School Division became part of Brandon University’s VOICES Project and with that came additional support and funding to expand Lakeshore’s school improvement work. Several teachers participated with learning tours and additional professional learning around the 14 themes. Teachers shared their new understandings both informally and formally across the division. Prior to this process, this level of research and conversation had been unseen. One teacher remarked, “I haven’t read so much educational research since I graduated from university years ago!” The cultural shift was deepening.

The reference to “educational research” expresses a lack of critical thinking. Most educational research, assumes that the present school system constitutes the standard. It goes around in circles by engaging in educational research while assuming that its object of analysis is the only possible one (with minor changes only possible). Such an approach is of course conservative. As I wrote in one publication (see in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, on the homepage, “A Deweyan Review of the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012):

The basis of the research—both the document itself and the sources used–however, is the present school system, so the structure of the present school system constitutes the standard for determining what good education is. Since the modern school system emphasizes academics, research based on that system is bound to do so as well—in a vicious circle. The research, based on a school system that emphasizes academics to the exclusion of the human body (or the latter as an afterthought or add on), then reinforces a school system that emphasizes academics to the exclusion of the human body and so forth. There is really no alternative vision to the present school system but merely a variation on an old theme despite the good intention of being critical.

For further criticism of educational research, see the post  Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure.

There is a lesson to be drawn from the above: the social democrats or the social reformers underestimate vastly the extent to which future workers (students) are indoctrinated into accepting the present social system. There is so much rhetoric thrown around in schools (and elsewhere, such as social-service agencies and organizations) that there is little wonder that workers become cynical of the possibility for real change. And what do social democrats do? They, for the most part, remain silent–rather than engaging in constant critique of such rhetoric. Or they themselves participate in such rhetoric by referring to “social justice in schools,” “fair contracts,” “decent work,”  and so forth.

Let us now look at Phase 4:

Phase 4: Experiment (September 2013 – June 2014)

During the fourth phase of the process, Lakeshore teachers and administrators focused on trying out some of the skills and strategies they had explored during the Ideate Phase. This involved enhancing existing practices and innovating and trying new approaches. Experiments included using class iPad sets within various settings, developing interdisciplinary classrooms, reimagining learning spaces, experimenting with flipped classrooms and developing project-based approaches. One of the most powerful moments in the process came when trustee Jim Cooper stood up in front of the teachers and said, “The board is behind you. We want you to try some things in your classrooms; if those don’t work, try some other things. It’s OK to fail.” This attitude of openness and acceptance allowed teachers to imagine, innovate and experiment with new educational strategies and ideas. The divisional culture shifted to allow teachers to adopt new mindsets around what it means to teach and learn.

Experiments involved using a particular form of computer technology in various contexts–but evidently within the framework of the existing bias of a curriculum focused on literacy and numeracy at the elementary level and academic learning at the junior and senior high-school levels. As I wrote in my article “Is the Teaching of Symbolic
Learning in the School System Educational?” (in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, found on the home page):

Evidently, then, symbolic learning forms the core of the modern school curriculum at the elementary level and continues to form a central aspect in middle and high school curricula with their emphasis on academic learning.

Experiments also involved using interdisciplinary classrooms. Presumably, such subjects as language arts and social studies could be combined–as was the case for English language arts and social studies in grade 9. However, as I have pointed out in another post, the Canadian social studies curriculum is biased and indoctrinates students by not teaching them how and why employers exist (see, for example,  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees). Combining curricula will not change this fact. Nor will it change the focus on academic learning and symbolic learning.

“Reimagine Lakeshore” was really not very innovative. It was a top-down initiated process that lacked any real critical thinking. Its reimagination–was to imagine a rehashed school system that merely modifies a few “variables” (such as integrating a few subjects within a predominately symbolic and academic curriculum that itself is biased).

A critical look at this “reimagining process” will continue in a second post by looking at some “analyses” of this process as well as one source that such analyses rely on to justify their views.