Social justice & “hidden curriculum”

“Social Justice” is the underlying philosophy in Ontario and, in fact, in all publicly funded Canadian and U.S. schools today. Some taxpayers and journalists, like Sue-Ann Levy of the Toronto Sun, believe it is destroying the education system in Ontario from within.

In her column today, for example, she assumes teachers’ unions can do something to change what is taught or at least what is emphasized. The reality is that, by themselves, teachers’ unions cannot.

Look, I understand where Levy is coming from and I agree with her that school choice would shake things up and bring about change — even if reluctantly. But, the reality is that comprehensive curriculum change is only changed from the top — by society. And by society, I mean parents, the media, the politicians, academic researchers and yes, the teachers’ unions.

Notice, I did not include teachers in the change process and the reason I did not is because, in their jobs at least, teachers are followers. They prepare their unit themes and daily lesson plans from government documents and teach their students directly from those plans.

Perhaps I need to explain that a bit more. For those who don’t realize it, teachers are bound by a code of ethics they are taught in teachers’ college. Chief among that code is that they never ever critique their employers. In fact, even on their own time, say at a parent meeting at their community center, they have to be careful what they say and do.

Anyway, there is a formal technical term for the social and political influences on the school system and that is the “hidden curriculum.” And, no, that is not just edu-babble. There really is both an intended and unintended curriculum that guides everything that goes on in each and every school system, school board and school.

For example, you will often hear parents say they took their child out of one public school for another public school because the new school had a better academic, sports, arts or drama program. That is where choice would shake things up. If parents didn’t like their neighbourhood public school choices, they could use their choice voucher and send their child to a private school with the curriculum emphasis they preferred.

Anyway, in Ontario, this is how public school curriculum guidelines are developed from the top down.

  1. The Education Ministry develops overall education goals and curriculum priorities for their public schools at the direction of the Education Minister. I know this process to be true as I observed it when I worked for a Mike Harris MPP who was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Education Minister.
  2. Once the overall curriculum “guidelines” are developed, those documents are available online and distributed to school boards which, in turn, make them available to school administrators who then make them available to classroom teachers and school-based subject specialists.
  3. Then the teachers use the formal guidelines as the basis of their yearly unit themes and daily lesson plans based on what they personally believe about those themes and teaching and learning.
  4. Lastly, each teacher submits their documents to their principal for his or her approval, who may or may not recommend revisions.

In other words, an awful lot of people have input into what children are taught and how they are taught. Sure, teachers’ unions can be a part of that process, but they, alone, cannot tell the Education Ministry what to do.

As Levy’s argument implies, Ontarians are going to struggle for the next few years because we have a provincial government that is conservative and a public school system that is progressive. And, that reality has both intended and unintended consequences. Like it or not, some of the unintended consequences are the inroads social justice warriors have made. So, apart from Levy’s suggestion to allow publicly funded school choice, I simply cannot foresee a different philosophy influencing the public school curriculum anytime soon — hidden or otherwise.

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