“The basics” & society’s changing expectations

If parents and educators want to stress more of “the basics” in public schools, something is going to have to give because the school day and the school curriculum are just too crowded. It’s odd, really, how people will complain that the education system does not respond to public input and pressure when, in actual fact, it has responded to the point of its detriment.

For example, in September of 1972 when I started teaching elementary school, I had a homeroom Grade 6 and taught visual art to Grades 6 to 8. My morning consisted of two main blocks of time. From 9am until 10:30 it was language arts (reading, writing and spelling) and from 10:45 until noon it was math. That was it. Then, in the afternoon, there was phys. ed/health, music or art (on alternating days) from 1 until 2:00 and social studies or science from 2:15 until 3:30pm.

In many ways it was like “the balanced school day” now with the large blocks of time — but with fewer subjects. Clearly the emphasis was on what many call “the basics” — reading, writing and arithmetic, social studies and science.

Then, along came (in no particular order) daily classes of “sustained silent reading (SSR),” phys ed, health and French. Then, we were asked to include dental education and sex education in health. Now, I understand there are also curriculum units on diversity and equity (including gender equality), family education and drug education.

Now, a key question could be: How did all that change come about? Well, in my opinion, most of these additions were not as a result of research and academic elites telling the education system what to include in the curriculum.

While it is true educational researchers (following on the heels of the Hall Dennis Report in the late 1960’s) were responsible for the start of social promotion, open concept schools and so-called “whole language,” it was parental pressures that made the biggest difference when it came to adding to the curriculum — making it very crowded indeed.

So, here we are now, some 36 years later, and when we look back we realize just how much the publicly funded “system” has responded to public pressures. The problem is, however, that in responding to those demands, nothing was thrown out.  The day was not lengthened. The year was not lengthened and, in fact, has actually been shortened because of all the professional development days.

In other words, time on the “basics” have had to be continually reduced to make way for all these other demands.  Now what? There are only so many hours in a day and something has to give.

While many love to blame teachers and the teachers’ unions for all that is wrong with the education system — and they are responsible for the professional development days and I admit that not all teachers are created equal — there also needs to be some soul searching here as well by parents, past and present.

How many times have I heard comments like: “Why are they not learning that at school? I mean, how much time can it take in a week to teach _____?” Fine, but you can’t have it both ways. And, while it may not be politically correct to ask: What is left for children and youth to learn at home?

Moira MacDonald has an excellent column in today’s Toronto Sun on the complexity of the school system and how busy it is. Well, if parents want more of the “basics,” they are either going to have to take something away, lengthen the school day or lengthen the school year. Or, all of the above.

This issue is not just about teachers and teachers’ unions. It is also about parents and society’s expectations. 

Just a thought. But, maybe that is why independent schools do so well (or even the publicly funded Catholic system who also manage to include religious classes). They do not need to be all things to all people. So, when parents are able to choose where to send their children, they decide which school provides what they feel their children need — and usually the curriculum in private schools focuses on “the basics.”

Something to think about. 

H/T to Cathy Cove for the MacDonald article URL.

2 thoughts on ““The basics” & society’s changing expectations

  1. Michael Fullan and Mark Holmes are at opposite ends of the political and change spectrum. But, everything they and you say about change and ideology is true.

    However, also true is that, in some way, all change comes about through public and political pressure. Very little change, certainly no significant change, comes about from the government and board bureaucracies. That is not their role.

    But, I have sat through enough IPRC meetings on behalf of parents of special needs children, enough meetings with Ontario politicians and spoke at enough parent advocacy conventions, to know that some advocacy organizations actually do get heard. True, their voices tend to be like a drop in the bucket over time, but change does happen.

    Some voices, such as in Toronto re the black-focused school somehow get heard over other parent voices, but that is up to the other voices. The name of the game is publicity and the same messaging over and over and over.

    An example:

    During the 1970’s the Ontario Learning Disability Association and other parent advocacy groups lobbied hard and continually for recognition of special needs students under the education act. It took a decade but it worked.

    Bill 82 became part of the Education Act in 1983, which resulted in the still current IPRC regulation. I wrote widely on both the Bill and its regulation and boards handed out my articles on the topic to parents.

    I also wrote then that it wouldn’t stick because of the words “may” and “could” in the regulation — which gave boards the out they needed. I tried very hard to get the same parent advocacy groups to fight for the wording to change. But, they had struggled so long and their kids were growing up and they were passing the baton to the next generation of parents.

    Unfortunately, those parents thought the key was classroom integration, mainstreaming as it is called in the U.S. Boards jumped on it because that approach was cheaper and some parent groups were demanding it.

    I recall speaking at a number of parent advocacy conventions on the topic of parent advocacy and warned that they should continue their fight. But, as I said above, children grow up (as did my son) and new parents take over the volunteer positions.

    I was talking to a parent the other day in just such a position and she felt powerless. Yet, I can remember what firecrackers we had in the late seventies and early eighties. Somehow, they seemed to know how to run publicity campaigns and how to raise the money to pay for those campaigns.

    The truth is, apart from this blog, I’m past advocating in person now. But as long as parents feel as you do that they can’t and won’t make a dent in the political system.

    Another example of course where parents were effective is prior to the 1995 provincial election — to the point where the Harris team included the promise to develop new curriculum documents right in the Common Sense Revolution document — because parents were demanding that. Parents were also demanding that teachers performance be tested and accountable to the people. The Harris government responded and tried to do both. As we know, much of that is now being undone by the McGuinty government.

    Choice is one way of course. But, there are other ways as well. But, they take a lot of volunteer hours and fundraising.

    Sorry for the ramble.


  2. Good article Sandy. The elementary system is especially challenged by just not enough time in the day for everything that the Ministry demands. It is a shame since it is often the subjects students enjoy most that are shortened or missed because too much time is spent on other subjects like math, science, etc where more emphasis (and testing) by the Ministry is demanded.

    I think there will always be frustration about curriculum because there are so many views and opinions on what should be taught. It seems each stakeholder has their own version of the perfect system. I remember in the 1990’s when everyone wanted a new curriculum. The Conservatives came through in that regard at great length and expense and this new curriculum was seen as a back to basics approach. It has not even been 10 years and now more changes are necessary? That seems to be the impression I am getting at least. If that is the case then Ontario needs to make some tough decisions on what subjects will get axed because the kids are already busy enough in the school day. Either that or take a lesson from their private or Catholic counterparts who seem to consistently score higher across the board while including more subjects in the curriculum.


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