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.

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

Introduction

This is a continuation of a previous post (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In the previous post in this series, I argued against considering the expansion of free public services as socialist and for supporting the struggle for such free public services while simultaneously criticizing the limitations of such a struggle. The expansion of free public services in no way is the same as the beginning of a socialist society.

In this post, I expand on the limitations of the view that free public services amount to a socialist society by looking at the provision of such free public services from the side of the people who receive or use such services.

General Considerations: An Illegitimate Assumption 

Dhunna and Bush make the following claim about their aims:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services. Compared with universal basic income, universal basic services cost less, meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people, and affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure. That’s our bread and butter.

They assume what they must prove: that there is an identity between “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure.” What does “publicly operated infrastructure” mean? It must mean–operated by the government or state. They imply that the shift from private to public ownership somehow entails democratic control over “publicly owned infrastructure.” Publicly owned infrastructure is supposed to magically become operated–by the public–or operated democratically? They provide no evidence that the mere shift of services provided by the private sector to the public sector or the government somehow involves democratic control over the government.

In my previous post in this series, I acknowledged the positive side of state services that do not involve the user in having to pay personally or directly for such services in; in Canada, the classic example is free and universal basic health care. I have had cancer twice now (invasive bladder cancer diagnosed in 2009 and rectal cancer, diagnosed in 2015 (with metastatic liver cancer diagnosed in 2017). I certainly appreciate the fact that I did not, personally and directly, have to pay for health services connected to both the diagnosis and the removal and elimination of the cancer through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

The social-democratic left, however, do not focus on the negative side of such services to any great extent; alternatively, when they acknowledge it, they usually refer to the cliche of working “in and against the state.” The fact is that they mainly work within the state and pay lip service to working against the state.

Dhunna and Bush do not even acknowledge how their reforms will involve both positive and negative aspects–contradictions. Such services often simultaneously enable and alienate those who receive their services. From Adrian Little (1998), Post-Industrial Socialism: Towards a New Politics of Welfare, page 38:

As such it [the welfare state] cannot necessarily be regarded as an egalitarian institution because, as Baker suggests, ‘the present welfare state is a compromise which serves many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control.’ In short, Baker argues that ‘the welfare state is designed for an unequal society’ (Baker
1987:10).

An enhanced welfare state is certainly preferable to a welfare state stripped of protections–but it is still a welfare state that presupposes that workers are to work for a class of employers–and that those who receive services from the welfare state are to be controlled to a greater or less extent in one way or another. Dhunna’s and Bush’s neglect of the issue of control over work and their focus on free public services ignore the negative side of public welfare in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated general economic, political and social structures.

As Primož Krašovec argues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=T6HIhwVmgh4&feature=emb_title), the left’s idealization of the public sector–as if it were a haven of democracy–hardly provides an accurate picture of the nature of public sector work. Although the Canadian public sector is more heavily unionized than the private sector, to assume that higher unionization means democracy and control over our lives is just that–an assumption that requires justification.

Mr. Krasovec asks why some people–other than the rich–support neoliberal policies. His answer is that such neoliberal policies do address–unlike the social-democratic policies–some concerns of the ordinary worker about the public sector–such as the bureaucratic, neo-feudalist status of the state in the public education system. Both students and workers do not like these rigid hierarchical structures. Neoliberal policies may indeed be misleading about the efficacy of market policies in destroying these hierarchies if they are introduced into the public sector, but they nevertheless touch a real concern of workers and students.

This applies not only to public education but also to state administration in other public services. We cannot pretend that long lines at the doctor’s office do not happen, or that superficial treatment does not occur, or that bureaucratic incompetence does not arise–because people experience them every day in their dealings with these institutions. To fail to recognize these experiences and not to take them into account when formulating policy is to feed into the neoliberal backlash.

This idealization of the public sector will unlikely convince many who have experienced the negative aspect of public services since it does not correspond to their own experiences.

I mentioned above that I have been diagnosed with cancer twice (and diagnosed with metastatic cancer once). Given free public health care, as I said, I certainly appreciate the free treatment that I received. However, when we look at the wider context, the treatment also has negative aspects. As I argued in another post: (see Class Harmonies in Health Care? The Social-Democratic Way):

Today, though, many social determinants are largely ignored in favour of focusing on caring for those already sick. Consider breast cancer. It arises in many instances from environmental conditions, and yet most money is allocated to caring for those already inflicted with the disease rather than with preventing it from arising in the first place. From Faye Linda Wachs (2007), (pages 929-931), “Review. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. By Samantha King,” in Gender & Society, volume 21, number 6 (December), pages 930-931:

Recent studies reveal that simply removing known carcinogens from products and our environment could prevent thousands of cases annually (Brody et al. 2007). However, funding for such research is limited, while the monies for identifying and curing existing cases is the focus of most efforts. Indeed, many of the companies that fund survivorship continue to use known car cinogens in their products. King points to the fact that despite increased awareness, rates of breast cancer have increased from 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 7 in 2004. Even if one considers women’s increasing longevity, this still indicates an increase in the prevalence of breast cancer. Moreover, structural factors that affect risk and survivorship, such as socioeconomic status, remain woefully understudied.

Other experiences with the bureaucracy also tends to alienate the public from the public sector. Humiliation of the unemployed by office workers occurs, for example, and to not acknowledge such facts as a problem is to feed into the neoliberal ideology. So too does invasive surveillance of mothers by state bureaucrats. So too does humiliation of residents in public housing.

Nowhere do Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush acknowledge relations of domination and subordination in the public sector. Such experiences also alienate the public from the public sector. Mr. Krasnovic, by contrast, argues that it is necessary for the left to engage in a critique of the public sector in order to acknowledge the real problems that real people experience in relation to state institutions and state inequalities. It is necessary for the left to acknowledge these problems if they are to address neoliberalism and how it feeds off of the daily experiences of people in relation to the state.

Nowhere do the writers really address the nature of the problem of “the market.” despite the title of their article. On the assumption, though, that they oppose in fact the exploitation and oppression of workers in the private sector (a big assumption since many social democrats merely pay lip service to opposing exploitation and oppression since they really have no intention of aiming for the beginning of a movement towards the abolition in the present but rather push such a goal to the vague future–see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three–as Mr. Krasovec points out, it is hypocritical to criticize exploitation and oppression of private sector workers while not doing so in the public sector. Mr. Krasovec, like me, does not believe that any just society can arise as long as the capitalist state exists.

General Oppressive Structures and Relations in Public Services 

Dhunna’s proposal for expanded public services would be different from present-day life, but not that different–as John Baker (1987) notes in his Arguing for Equality, pages 9-10:

Equality and the welfare state

For nearly a century, equality has been linked with the idea of the ‘welfare state’: income support for the elderly, unemployed and disabled; publicly provided education for all, with a trend in the direction of comprehensive, mixed-ability schooling; a free, comprehensive health service, at least for the worst off; public housing for people on low incomes; and a variety of social services for people with special needs. Would an egalitarian society mean more of the same? Since the welfare state does stand for more equality than ‘free market’ alternatives offered by its opponents, there are certainly good reasons for supporting and defending it. But there are two major reasons why an egalitarian society might turn out to be very different.

First of all is the issue of democratic control. The present welfare state is a compromise which suits many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control. In some areas, particularly in housing, users and providers of public services are starting to cooperate in making the system more democratic, but there’s a long way to go. Too much of the system still runs on the belief that the bureaucrats know best and that consumers should be grateful for whatever they’re given.

The second reason is that the welfare state is designed for an unequal society. Many of its policies and problems would be transformed by more equality. For instance, there’s a lot of argument in education over how to promote equality of opportunity in an unequal society. There are bitter conflicts over the use of limited funds, with parents fighting over the means to protect their children’s futures. Schooling is seen as a major cause of achievement in adult life, and since all children are in competition for advancement there is no limit to the demand for educational resources. Even a good school could be better, making a crucial difference to children’s educational success. No wonder there are disputes over private schooling, mixed-ability classes, examination systems, busing! In an egalitarian society, there would still be disagreements over the best ways to ensure that every person had the opportunity to develop their ability in a satisfying and fulfilling way and over how to use our resources — disagreements that it would be impossible to sort out now. But there wouldn’t be conflict over access to privilege; the penalty for ‘failure’ wouldn’t be poverty; there wouldn’t be a contrast between inner city ghettos and middle class suburbs.

Undoubtedly the welfare state provides some of the materials for the social institutions of an egalitarian society, as well as a great deal of experience in providing for people’s needs. But it would be wrong to imagine that an equal society would just be a bigger welfare state. It would be in many ways a different society altogether.

Or, as Wolfgang Streeck (2016) argues, the building of protective layers over top of the capitalist economy seeks a different form or variety of capitalism–and not its dismantling. From How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System:

Fred Block’s notion of an ‘always embedded’ capitalism subject to a ‘primacy of politics’ radiates an optimism that conspicuously resembles what European social democrats have for a long time made themselves believe: that socialism, as defined above, could be had, preserved and surreptitiously expanded on top of a capitalist economy-cum-society, by serving its inexorably growing functional need for collective governance. Looking back at the past four decades, however, we see a sustained process of institutional transformation, slow but irresistible and driven, not by democratic politics but by the dynamic logic of capitalist development, that has effectively destroyed most if not all of the political safeguards whose establishment had been the very condition for capitalism being allowed to return after the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. That logic, and the reorganization – or disorganization – of social life that it dictated, culminates today in the dual crisis of the global financial as well as the national democratic state system. Decades of ‘reform’ aimed at meeting the ever more aggressive demands of capitalist markets have only exacerbated the capitalist wear and tear on the social fabric, often with the connivance of blackmailed states and governments, including social-democratic ones. Is this experience really compatible with a theory that considers ‘market society’ to be at the disposition of politics? Or does it not rather speak for attributing to capitalism as a social action system a life, a logic, a power and a dynamism of its own, on which social-democratic post-war politics as usual has more and more lost its grip? If one comes to conclude, as I have, that it is the latter that is the more realistic perspective, is it then still responsible to invest one’s time and energy in developing responsible ideas as to how responsible governments may repair ‘the system’ or turn one variety of capitalism’ into another? Or would it not be much more constructive to be less constructive – to cease looking for better varieties of capitalism and instead begin seriously to think about alternatives to it?

This post does try to focus on some of the negative sides of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Oppressive Public Educational Services

Grades or Marks in Schools

Another problem with their article is that they assume that public or state or government services need only be expanded rather than fundamentally or qualitatively altered (something they share with Sam Gindin, former research director for the large national union Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor) and the academic leftist Jeff Noonan (see, for example, The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two). In the area of education, for example, they simply advocate free access to university.

The school system, of which the university is a part, is simply not considered. For example, are not grades (marks) an oppressive feature of the modern school system (including universities)? Do they not function to sort the “intelligent” from the “less intelligent?” Of course, assessment of some kind must occur, but all assessment could be in the form of feedback for improvement (formative assessment) and not in any form of quantitative assessment. As I wrote in an article (see in my Publications and Writings section, “Dewey and Assessment: Opposition to the Modern School System):

A few years ago, I was the chair of the local Equity and Social Justice Committee of a teacher’s association. I sent off articles and some of my thoughts to the Equity and Social Justice Ning (a kind of blog) of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. At a school where I worked in Manitoba, I also placed the same articles and my own thoughts in binders in the staff lounge for the staff to read. At one point, I argued that there was a conflict between grades and teacher feedback (usually in the form of written or verbal comments) that is supposed to improve teaching and learning. My own experience in receiving both teacher feedback and grades was such that I almost always looked at the grade first and only then (if at all) looked at the teacher’s comments afterward. I doubt that my experience is unique.

At a meeting with Janet Martell, the superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, and the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, Ms. Martell stated that she considered my argument about the contradiction of grades and teacher feedback via formative assessment to be faulty and would address it later during the meeting. She never did.

Grades, or what in educational circles is called summative assessment, is characterized by the following. From Shujon Mazumder (2020). “Critical Education: Increasing Student Achievement through Formative Assessments.” The Organizational Improvement Plan at Western University, 149. Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/oip/149, pages 10-11: 

According to Frey (2014), the defining characteristics of summative assessments include:
• Assessing student learning at the end of a period of instruction.
• Is typically very formal with defined test-taking rules and scoring procedures.
• Its main purpose is to determine grades. (p. 91)
Summative assessments view students as receptacles of information, and learning is measured by how well they can restate facts and knowledge given to them by their teachers.

The typical summative procedure of grading proceeds as follows page 11): 

Table 1
Traditional Sequence of Activities in Student Assessment Cycle

1. Students are given instructions and advice about how to approach the assessment.
2. Students may undertake developmental, formative assessment to gain some feedback on their progress in this area of learning, before submitting their formally assessed (that is, summative) work.
3. Students prepare for their summative assessment, either individually or in collaboration with peers (where the latter is permitted and required).
4. Students undertake the assessment (e.g. write the essay; complete\the group project; give the presentation; sit the exam).
5. Students submit the assessment to the assessors, who are already experts in the field.
6. Students await feedback on the assessment.
7. Feedback and/or marks are made available.
8. Students may or may not access the feedback on their work. Students may or may not assimilate the feedback and actively use it to inform future approaches to learning and assessment.

How many reading this post have experienced the oppressive nature of grades–which is counterproductive to real learning? How many can identify with the following comments on the experience of grading in schools (dated February 11, 2018):

Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

Reading The Case Against Grades brought up a TON of emotions for me this week. Some of the emotions this pieced evoked from me were anger, frustration rage and even a bit of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed for my present self, but embarrassed for my younger self, the me 10-15 years ago who wasn’t among her high-achieving peers in the classroom. I went to school in a county, on a particular side of the county where high grade marks and straight A’s were an expectation of almost everyone. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t one of those students. I excelled in my elective classes like music/choir classes, home economics/teen living and sociology but could never seem to master’s subjects like physics, geometry and chemistry. It was embarrassing to receive my test scores and they sometimes were significantly lower than my peers.

In The Case Against Grades, Kohn mentions that several of the effects of grading are that grades tend to diminish what students are learning, grades create a preference for the easiest possible task and that grades tend to reduce the quality of students thinking. All of these statements resonate with me on a personal level. … Essentially, students are not taught to think at all. Grades are a way of inhibiting students learning. If students do not receive good grades, they are thought of as less than adequate and labeled as “problem” children when, in fact, many of those labels could not be further from the truth.

The oppressive nature of grades is similar in many ways to what I referred to in an earlier post about external or bad aims (which are oppressive) (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). Internal or good aims link our goals to what we are doing now and the means available to us by organizing present activities and means; they link the future with the present and the present with the future in a logical and coherent manner. External or bad aims, by contrast, involve a disconnect between means and ends. In the case of grades, the goal is to obtain the highest grade possible, and there is no intrinsic connection between that goal and the organization of present activities and means as internally related to each other. Such an external aim as obtaining the highest grades often leads to focusing on satisfying the teacher rather than the specific nature of problems–and hence diminishes the power of children and adolescents to address the problems that arise in the process of living.

Alfred Kohn (see link above) has this to say about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in relation to grades:

Motivation:  While it’s true that many students, after a few years of traditional schooling, could be described as motivated by grades, what counts is the nature of their motivation.  Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake (Kohn 1999a).  Many assessment specialists talk about motivation as though it were a single entity — and their recommended practices just put a finer gloss on a system of rewards and punishments that leads students to chase marks and become less interested in the learning itself.  If nourishing their desire to learn is a primary goal for us, then grading is problematic by its very nature.

I mentioned above another form of assessment–formative assessment. This form of assessment is supposed to provide feedback to students without quantifying it–it is more qualitative and narrative. However, as Alfred Kohn notes, when it is linked to summative assessment, it performs a subordinate role and thus is still linked to an oppressive practice. From Kohn (see the link above):

It’s not enough to add narrative reports.  “When comments and grades coexist, the comments are written to justify the grade” (Wilson, 2009, p. 60).  Teachers report that students, for their part, often just turn to the grade and ignore the comment, but “when there’s only a comment, they read it,” says high school English teacher Jim Drier.  Moreover, research suggests that the harmful impact of grades on creativity is no less (and possibly even more) potent when a narrative accompanies them.  Narratives are helpful only in the absence of grades (Butler, 1988; Pulfrey et al., 2011).

Unsurprisingly, given the title of this blog, it would be better to aim for the abolition of grades in order to facilitate internal or intrinsic learning and to abolish the oppressive nature of grades and external or extrinsic learning. What is needed is only formative assessment or narrative (and personal interviews and personal forms of assessment).

For those who are parents, it should be obvious that you never quantify your assessment of your child’s or adolescent’s performance; you provide verbal feedback mostly in order to guide the child or adolescent. 

The Oppressive Curriculum, or the Oppressive Program of Studies

In addition to the oppressive nature of grades for some students, there is the question of the adequacy of current curriculum structure and content to address the learning needs of children and adolescents. As I argued in another post (see Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure), most educational research assumes that the current educational system is the standard, with only variations (reforms) around this standard conceivable (similar to the social-democratic or reformist left).

The expansion of public services such as education is then conceived only in terms of–more of what is essentially the same. For an alternative (socialist) educational system, which does not foresee a mere expansion of existing educational services but a major restructuring of the curriculum in order to contribute to the abolition of the separation of manual and intellectual labour and life, see Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Three: Education ).

The imposition of grades as external motivators then permits the creation of a curriculum that involves the learning of many irrelevant things that have little to do with addressing present problems and interests. This in turn leads to the weighing down of the mind by unused and irrelevant facts, leading to the dulling of interest and the wonder of children in the world around them. From Katherine Mayhew and Anna Edwards (1936), The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903, pages 21-22: 

“He must learn by experience” is an old adage too little heeded by modern methods of schooling. Too often these methods take for granted that there is a short cut to learning, and that knowledge apart from its use has meaning for the developing mind. The memorizing of such knowledge has come to be a large part of present-day education, with the result that great masses of young lives have been denied the thrill of experimental living, of finding the way for themselves, of discovery, of invention, of creation. The fine aspiring tendril of childhood’s native curiosity, like the waving tip of a growing vine, seeks the how and why of doing its intellectual food. It is early stunted in many children. The strong urge to investigate, present in every individual, is often crushed by the memorizing of great masses of information useless to him, or the learning of skills that he is told may be useful to him in the far-away future, the sometime, and the somewhere. Only those in whom the urge to know will not be denied break away into new trails by virtue of individual and experimental effort, and when directed in the use of the scientific method, climb to the highest peaks of living; the majority travel a wide made-easy
way of schooling into a dead level of mediocrity.

Are not most schools public? If so, then they must fall under Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealized view of public services: schools, as public institutions, “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.” Quite to the contrary. Public schools ‘affirm the oppressive power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.’ Merely because citizens do not pay for such services does not mean that oppression does not form part of such services–as long as there is a class of employers, along with the associated economic, political and social structures of such power.

Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealization of public services is typical of the social-democratic left. As I noted above, Mr. Sam Gindin, former research director of the former Canadian Auto Workers union (now Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada) merely views a socialist society as an expansion of public services rather than the abolition of oppressive structures in such services. He has this to say about public services in a socialist society:

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs [my emphasis].

Conclusion

There is little recognition of how “the public sector” can be oppressive. Referring to social services, such as “education” as if schools  and the school system were identical to non-oppressive services leads not only to the perpetuation of oppressive conditions but also to members of the working class becoming right-wing since such left-wing rhetoric fails to capture and express their experiences in this world. The social-democratic left, by idealizing the public sector, contribute to the right-wing backlash that has been raging for more than four decades. 

Dhunnah’s and Bush’s solution–expanded public services in the form of free education that do not involve the purchase of such services–does not solve the problem of an oppressive situation. Their critique of the principle of universal basic income, therefore, loses some of its legitimacy. 

In future posts, I may refer to the other side of the coin in education–not from the side of children and adolescents but from the side of those who work in schools, including teachers and custodians. Or perhaps health services (although I have already referred to some problems with the health sector (see Health Care: Socialist versus Capitalist Nationalization)–and therefore may not. Since most readers of this blog have provided little feedback or discussion, I will write on topics as I see fit–unless there is more feedback and discussion. 

However, I will definitely address in another post the criticisms of basic income that Dhunna and Bush offer–such as they are. 

Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure

When we read educational research, what is striking is how certain common assumptions run through such research. In particular, there is the assumption–hidden from view–that the curriculum or content and organization of studies taught at school–is sacred.

For example, in a short paper written by Jon Young and Brian O’Leary, “Public Funding for Education in Manitoba,” (August 31, 2017), and published by the social-reformist organization Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), they argue that we should not create a two-tier public school system, where some schools receive an unjustified amount of resources relative to other schools due, on the one hand, to increased expenses for field trips, the need for student ownership of computer technology and so forth and, on the other, to unequal funds arising through increased dependence on, for example, fundraising within economically unequal communities and unequal property taxes across school divisions. Differences in revenue from property taxes across school divisions can be as high as a 4 to 1 ratio per student.

One solution has been to shift funding from the local school board level to provincial and territorial funding (provinces and territories are the next largest administrative political unit in Canada) and coupling this with an equity formula to allow for different needs across. The problem with this solution is that it eliminates the democratic accountability that school boards provide by linking professional concerns in schools to the wider public interest, participation and accountability. Indeed, public schools presuppose democratic accountability (page 1):

 At the heart of this in Manitoba has been the commitment to public schooling as a public good – the belief that a strong public school system is the cornerstone of a democratic society that promotes well-being and citizenship for all – and not simply a private good, or commodity that can be differentially purchased by individual consumers. Everything flows from this. Public schooling as a public good involves the commitment to: public funding – that the full costs of public schooling are shared fairly across all sectors of society; public access and equity – that all students should have the opportunity to benefit fully from high quality schooling regardless of geographic location, local economic factors, or family circumstances; and, public participation and accountability – that decisions about public schooling are made in a democratic manner, which in Manitoba has meant a level of local autonomy, including taxing authority, for locally elected school boards.

Young and O’Leary then propose a compromise solution: 80 percent provincial funding and 20 percent funding from local property taxes; this combination would be linked to “a more robust provincial equalization formula” (page 3).

They then imply that this or any other model must involve focusing the expenditure of money on where it most matters: teaching and teachers. This view sounds progressive since school is supposed to exist for student learning: (page 3):

… that the most effective use of resources are those directed to the improvement
of teaching. This is echoed by the highly influential Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) that concluded:

The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals…. PISA results show that among countries and economics whose per capita GDP is more that USD 20,000 high performing school systems tend to pay more to teachers relative to their national income per capita (OECD, 2013, p. 26)

Any discussion of money and funding need to be broadly cast as about resources and making resources matter – with teachers as our most valuable resource.

Teaching and pedagogy certainly matter in schools, but the authors are silent about the influence of the curriculum (the overt curriculum, or the structure or organization and content of studies) on student learning. This silence is typical of many discussions on schools and education.

Given that the modern Canadian history curriculum indoctrinates students by means of its silences concerning the nature and origin of the employer-employee relation (see the series, beginning with A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), teachers can have all the resources they like, but it is unlikely that they will overcome such indoctrination since it is built into the school system.

Furthermore, the bias in the curriculum towards academics over vocational aspects of the curriculum follows the same pattern: it is built into the present curriculum. John Dewey long ago questioned the democratic nature of such a biased curriculum. From (Neil Hopkins (2018)., “Dewey, Democracy and Education, and the School Curriculum,” Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, Volume 46, number 4, pages 433-440), pages 437-438:

A critical area where Dewey’s Democracy and Education [Dewey’s main book on his philosophy of education] challenged contemporary assumptions on the curriculum was the idea that children and knowledge could be categorised as ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. Such divisions have straitjacketed British education for the last 150 years, both institutionally (e.g. grammar and second modern schools; sixth-forms and FE colleges) and in terms of qualifications (e.g. O Level/CSE; A Level/BTEC). These divisions have often replicated class divisions within society-at-large to the extent that schools have often been seen as the nurseries of inequality and social injustice.

Dewey attacked the academic/vocational divide in terms of both knowledge and education. As a philosophical pragmatist, he was skeptical of purely abstract knowledge, stating that ‘the separation of “mind” from direct occupation with things throws emphasis on things at the expense of relations or connections’ (Dewey 2007, 109). These relations and connections are vital – once mind is separated from body, we lose the vital thread that ties ideas with standard notions of reality. Knowledge is an interaction of key concepts with the world as we know it. It is this sense of application and practicality that distinguishes Dewey’s work from some of his contemporaries. He was critical of

intellectualism [where] [p]ractice was not so much so much subordinated to knowledge as treated as a kind of tag-end or aftermath of knowledge. The educational result was only to confirm the exclusion of active pursuits  from school, save that they might be brought in for purely utilitarian ends – the acquisition by drill of certain habits. (Dewey 2007, 197)

This separation of intellect and practice, mind and body is often mirrored within the education system itself…

To this extent, education replicates and prepares children for the division of labour that exists within a capitalist society. This state of affairs deeply concerned Dewey in two ways. Firstly, as I have alluded to above, the partition of learning into academic and vocational gives a false depiction of how knowledge is conceptualised and transmitted. Secondly, the use of academic and vocational routes for students does not allow each to develop their faculties to the fullest extent.

This lack of critical distance from the present school system, with its biased curriculum structure,  is characteristic of much educational research. There are schools that have tried to overcome this bias. The University Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School) in Chicago between 1896 and 1904. In this curriculum, the focus was on the common needs of most human beings for food, clothing and shelter throughout history. The children reproduced, intellectually, socially and on a miniature scale, different historical epochs (such as fishing, hunting, agriculture and industrial). Reading, writing and arithmetic were functions of the human life process and not the center of learning as they now are in elementary schools.

A more recent approach is Kingsholm Primary School in Gloucester, England (page 439):

Kingsholm Primary made a strategic decision to move from a subject-based to a thematic curriculum to meet the perceived needs of the pupils at the school. The curriculum has been envisaged as a set of interconnecting circles to incorporate aspects of the child’s world, specific themes/curriculum areas, the geographical location and what the school has termed ‘the wider curriculum’.

One particular theme that was concentrated on in the video was ‘Earth and Beyond’. This was a Year 5 and 6 project that uses the idea of space to explore different elements of the primary curriculum. The theme included transforming the learning environment itself alongside work on the creation of a space poem using ‘word stones’ and a collaborative dance interpreting the concept of space in the form of bodily movement (as well as other activities).

It has to be acknowledged that such examples already build upon the excellent work on themes and projects undertaken by schools throughout England. These examples offer interesting opportunities to challenge the academic/vocational divide in the school curriculum. It allows children to see and create the connections between different aspects of knowledge so that concepts and their application become concrete. As we have already seen, this dynamic between concept and application was important in Dewey’s theory of knowledge. However, such innovations are likely to be easier to undertake in Early Years and Key Stage 1 – the requirements of programmes of study in Key Stage 2 and beyond make such thematic work more challenging (although not necessarily impossible). It will be interesting to see if the development of academies and free schools that can operate outside the parameters of the National Curriculum will lead to radical curriculum experiments in primary and secondary schools. For Dewey, such curricular innovation needed to take [the] statement below as its starting point:

In just the degree in which connections are established between what happens to a person and what he [sic] does in response, and between what he does to his [sic] environment and what it does in response to him, his acts and the things about him acquire meaning. He learns to understand both himself [sic] and the world of men [sic] and things. (Dewey 2007, 202)

Not only do Young and O’Leary neglect the importance of the curriculum, they also neglect the importance of marks and competition between students as an aspect that generates inequality. This situation contrasts with a more democratic form of schooling, one that attempts to avoid competition among students by eliminating marks altogether. Again, there were no marks used to evaluate students in the University Laboratory School (the Dewey School). A more recent example is from the 1950s: St. George-in-the-
East Secondary Modern School in Stepney, East London, with a much more democratic school structure (page 436):

Alongside this democratic decision-making structure were what Fielding terms as ‘existential frameworks for democratic living’ (‘Our Pattern’). These include values and principles that underpin the work of the school. As part of ‘Our Pattern’, a far-reaching set of beliefs and attitudes were formulated within the school body:

No streaming/setting→heterogeneous, sometimes mixed-age grouping
No punishment→restorative response
No competition→emulation
No marks or prizes→communal recognition
(Taken from Fielding 2007, 550)

The idealization of the modern public school system, by neglecting  the divided curriculum and the fetish for marks and competition, is typical of social democrats and social reformers. The call for the expansion of public services (without inquiring into the nature and adequacy of such public services) is also typical of the social-democratic left.

This lack of critical distancing from modern social reality by the social-democratic left feeds into the emergence of the far right and strengthens the right in general. Many working-class adults have experienced the modern public school system as in many ways oppressive. The social-democratic left, by failing to acknowledge such experiences, aid in reproducing the oppression characterized by the academic/vocational divide and the oppression of the assignment and competition of marks.

Should not the radical left distance itself from modern oppressive social reality and critically expose such oppression and possible, more radical alternatives?