Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

August 20, 2014 8:04 PM

































































































































































































































































































































































































































CHAPTER ONE: Making Sense of Public Schooling (5th Edition)


The Staff Room, 8:15 a.m. Linda Chartrand arrived at school as usual. Getting her own children ready for school and to the neighbour’s house for preschool care was always a rush, but she needed at least half an hour before the students arrived to review her plans for the day, to make sure that she had everything ready, to converse with colleagues, and to check on which resource people might be in school that day.

As she entered the school office, Pat, the secretary, called to her. “Don’t forget that your class will be going to the auditorium at 3:00 p.m. to practice for the school concert. And could you make sure that all the money is in for the book orders? Oh, and Mrs. Koslowski wants to ask if she could send the kids back 10 minutes early from Phys. Ed. so she can make a meeting with the divisional consultant. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” Linda replied. As an experienced teacher she knew that there would be last-minute changes in her schedule. She would have to reorganize her teaching to make use of the half hour between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m. As she was pondering how she would do this, the resource teacher, Eric Sigurdson, asked if he could come into her class to work with three of her students on their reading assessments for an extra half hour that morning. “The parents I was going to meet with had to cancel, so I’d like to give your kids the time.” Again, Linda agreed to the change.

Linda pulled out of her mailbox an agenda for an upcoming professional development day. At the first staff meeting of the year, the principal had asked the staff to spend the year reviewing the school’s mission statement and reaffirming their collective vision and goals for the school in light of the district’s goals and priorities. This was to be the focus of the day’s meetings.

Linda had been through a comparable process in her previous school, and remembered the similar reactions amongst the two staffs. Many teachers wondered about how a mission statement would matter to their work.  Some were surprised that the school had a mission statement, because they’d not seen it even after working there for several years. A few wondered why it would take a year to do this. Surely, they argued, a small subcommittee could draft something fairly easily, allowing time for the rest of the staff to focus on some of the pressing issues that needed to be dealt with, like a new conflict-resolution program for the children and the new assessment initiatives on which the grade 6 teachers were working.

But the discussion that had followed had been a good one, and by the end of the meeting, most of the staff had been supportive of the project. The principal had emphasized that she wasn’t interested in simply producing a public-relations document full of current jargon. She wanted the staff to talk through their different views of the school’s goals and priorities, and to come up with a statement of purpose that the staff as a whole would feel was their own. The statement would relate to daily school practices as well as set a direction for future initiatives. Some teachers began talking about their dreams for—and frustrations with—the school, and how they thought it had changed over the years. Despite the differences in the concerns and ideas of the teachers, when the meeting had ended, there had been an air of excitement about the project, which had carried over into the ensuing weeks.

Now, as the bell rang for the first class of the day, Linda was still thinking about the process of developing a mission statement that would actually capture what the school was all about. She thought of the mixed group of students she had in her class. Though each child has unique talents, she was always being reminded of how different they were from one another. Their reading levels ranged from grades 2 to 8.  The two new immigrant children were just starting to learn English, and couldn’t yet speak very much to the other kids although she had been trying to engage them socially with the group. She hardly noticed Rose’s wheelchair anymore. But Tommy still had occasional severe outbursts of rage that were hard on her and the students, although he’d improved since the year began. Linda wondered how much Tommy was really learning. She often asked herself how well she was engaging all students in learning.

Yes, she thought, it was going to be a good exercise to step back a bit from the everyday demands of the classroom and to think through the school’s priorities and the balance it could establish among so many demands and expectations. What were the goals of the school?

The purpose of this book is to help readers understand the different ways in which we have come to organize Kindergarten to Grade 12 education across the country. This chapter sets the stage by discussing some important underlying aspects of schooling in Canada. We begin with an analysis of contemporary school systems to ask why things are as they are and how they might be different. We then turn to a discussion of the purposes of education and the goals of schools, followed by a discussion of the main features of public schooling and some central tensions and dilemmas that are embodied in the organization of Canadian schooling. Taken together, this chapter provides an important background to the issues raised in later chapters.



Many people may take for granted the organizational aspects of schools, assuming that schools are the way they are for good reasons. But we regard it as very important for everyone involved with education to understand the way in which our schools are organized and operated so that they can ask questions about, and contribute in an informed way to, proposed changes. One approach to developing this understanding is through a description of constitutional, legal, and administrative structures that give direction to administrators, teachers, and students in the daily routines of school life. No one involved in schooling can afford to ignore the power exercised through these structures and processes. As a result, this text gives considerable attention to them and attempts to demonstrate concretely how they affect the daily work of teachers, and how they affect students’ experiences in schools.

However, this approach is not sufficient because Canadian schooling has been changing in important ways. Whereas for the most part, schooling in Canada continues to be regarded as a positive social institution that provides many benefits for individuals and for society, significant demographic, economic and cultural shifts have led to growing questions about the purposes of schools and how well they are currently being met. Though administrative structures and the organization of schooling itself have not necessarily changed significantly, expectations on teachers, administrators, students and parents shift constantly.  Changes in policy and practice are frequently announced by governments and school districts and schools are expected to “make them happen.” A variety of interest groups press for changes of one sort or another. Media accounts ask questions about whether our schools are good enough, too costly, well run, and so on.

These questions and issues are connected to changes in Canadian society (we discuss some of these a little later), and Canada’s place in the world. Central to the concept of globalization is the reality that recent changes in information and communication technologies, and the associated practices of intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and multinational corporations have produced an important shift from an emphasis on national economies to a far more open “global economy” accompanied by “worldwide discourses on human capital, economic development, and multiculturalism” (Spring, 2008, p. 1). Very closely connected to this has been the recent growth of government policies across much of the world, generally referred to as neo-liberalism, that support an individualistic rather than a communal vision of society. These policies promote competitive individualism and market competition in all areas of public life, with the role of government substantially reduced. In this new world order of technology, competition, and innovation, education is seen as key to economic prosperity. Indeed, sometimes the only rationale provided for education and schooling is economic success; we are now said to live in a “knowledge society” and compete internationally in a “global knowledge market.”

Concurrently, Canada is also experiencing a growth in diversity in many respects, along with attendant drives to accommodate differences in culture, language, religion, sexuality, and social class (Angelini, 2012).  Across the world, calls for attention to global sustainability and human rights force us to face the dangers of unimpeded economic growth at the expense of our planet and humanity. 

These developments have had a substantial impact on Canadian society and Canadian education. Changes in the nature of work and the demands of a skilled labour force have produced increased attention to “employability skills” such as information management, problem solving, and teamwork. We are also seeing a much greater focus on international comparisons of student achievement, school outcomes and organizational structures (OECD, 2013).

There are several international assessments of student skills and knowledge now, but the most influential has been the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) operated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD), an organization of 34 industrialized countries based in Paris.   PISA is intended to measure the ability of 15 year olds in key areas of adult life, including reading, mathematics, science, and, in the 2012 round, problem-solving.  It is a sophisticated test and the 2012 round will be the fourth.

The results of PISA have had a very substantial influence in many countries, not just in regard to comparative results but because PISA also tries to look at the policies that shape better educational outcomes.  For example, PISA results show that countries can combine high levels of achievement with low levels of inequality, and that early streaming of students into different pathways has negative effects.

Canadian students have done very well on all 5 rounds of PISA; Canada has consistently been the highest performing English-speaking country and has one of the lowest levels of inequality among students, showing the strength of our public education system. (See http://www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/318/PISA2012_CanadianReport_EN_Web.pdf).  However media coverage of PISA results often focuses on deficiencies in Canadian education rather than our consistent strong performance.

For some, the critical function of schools is to prepare students for adult work. But for others, this is seen as a dangerous and misplaced narrowing of the educative and democratic purposes of schools (Sears, 2003; Stromquist, 2002). The political drive for reduced government and for market competition in education has led to support for business models of management and operation in public education. It has also led to increased parental choice in the selection of the schools their children will attend as well as increased accountability for schools and teachers for the educational outcomes of students. Educators may well feel overwhelmed by all the pressures they face as a result of social, demographic and economic change. Yet in this climate of change, critical re-examination of school organization is essential, and it is vital that teachers provide leadership in this process. Rather than viewing current practice as somehow natural or obvious, we want to examine why things are the way they are, how they came to be this way, who benefits most from them, and the possibilities of their being otherwise. It is equally important that proposals for change, such as those associated with “responding to the demands of a global economy,” are carefully examined and critiqued (Sears, 2003).

We believe that one must approach school organization from a moral and educational perspective as well as from a technical perspective. In other words, questions of “how to” cannot be separated from questions of “why.” Nor is it possible to detach the discussion of school organization from a broader discussion of the purposes of schooling and its place in Canadian society.

In this text we also try to recognize the real world in which students, teachers, and administrators live and work on a daily basis. The official image is often a pale reflection of the complexity of real classrooms and schools. It is important to pay attention to the uniquely human nature of schools and to human behaviour with all of its idiosyncrasies, its intertwining of personal and professional lives, its dreams and disappointments, its friendships and hostilities, its egos and ambitions. Furthermore, school organization and administration must be seen as concerning not only those people who occupy positions termed as “administrative” (e.g., policymakers, directors, superintendents, and principals), but everyone who is engaged in, and affected by, the educational process, especially students.



In everyday language, people slip easily from “education” to “schooling” as though the two words were synonymous, with schools being the formal institutions of education. But a thoughtful examination of the organization of schooling in Canada requires thinking about the meaning of education, the purposes of schooling, and the particular significance of public schooling.

Questions of what it means to educate, or to be educated, have been the subject of debate at least since Aristotle (Barrow & Woods, 2006; Coulter & Wiens, 2008). In the Western liberal tradition, education is inextricably bound to ideas of self-knowledge or identity, as well as to a notion of empowerment -  “becoming more than we are.” Symons (1975) argued that to be educated means “to know ourselves”: who we are, where we are in time and space, where we have been and where we are going, and what our responsibilities are to ourselves and to others. Nor, he suggested, can self-knowledge be separated from an awareness of the social context in which we live our lives, the two kinds of knowledge being not merely interdependent “but ultimately one and the same” (p. 14).  Similarly, some Aboriginal scholars suggest that education must be premised upon respect for others, reciprocity in relationships, relevance to people’s real lives and worldviews, and helping students assume responsibility over their lives (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2001). 

For the process of acquiring self-knowledge to be considered educative, people must play an active role in creating their knowledge, in ways that inform actions and provide the skills and dispositions that enable people to grow and to exercise more control over the ways in which they live their lives. This view of education, although simplified in its presentation here, would not be acceptable to everyone. Traditionalists, for example, might argue that it does not give adequate attention to absorbing the central lessons of the past and the best of our collective cultures.
Education is about more than the formal process and structure of schooling. We learn many of the most important things in our lives before we begin our schooling, and over the course of our schooling we continue to learn many things outside of schools as a result of our experiences, our reading, our contact with other people, and our engagement with technology, particularly the Internet. Even institutional education extends well beyond the school system. Programs ranging from early childhood education to courses for senior citizens, and including the vast gamut of adult-education activity in Canada, are also clearly educational in their focus.

At the same time, for many people there is a clear connection between these general ideas of self-knowledge and their expectations of public schools in Canada. We expect schools to be places of learning and development for students. Yet this rhetoric masks the multiple functions that have been assigned to public schools since their establishment as compulsory institutions in Canadian society. The problems and tensions facing schools can be seen by considering their official goals and their actual purposes.



Why have formal education at all, and why is school attendance compulsory? We tend to take the goals of schooling as being relatively self-evident, but they are actually quite problematic. Begley (2010, pp. 33-35) drawing on the work of Christopher Hodgkinson, identifies three broad purposes for public schooling which he refers to as: the aesthetic – the formation of character and individual self-fulfilment; the economic – preparation for an adult work life; and, the ideological – socialization to the norms and conduct of society. These purposes are similar to historian Ken Osborne’s (2008) discussion of education, training, and citizenship as three competing expectations or goals for public schooling in Canada. While arguing for a “balanced presence” of each goal, Begley suggests that the emphasis and balance of these goals is always fluid, dynamic and contextual. Osborne, while noting that “public schooling in Canada was designed more as a tool for social policy than as an instrument of universal education” (p. 27) argues for the primacy of the educative purposes such that “school subjects are not things to be covered or memorized, but vehicles by which students might come to see themselves as heirs to a legacy of human striving that connects past, present, and future” (p. 37).

Coming at the question of purpose from a slightly different perspective, Barrow (1981) identifies six functions of schools —critical thinking, socialization, child care, vocational preparation, physical instruction, social-role selection, education of the emotions, and development of creativity.  In addition to these goals of education that focus on mind, body and emotions, there are also those who suggest that public schools need also consider the spiritual aspects of students’ beings, whether that is religiously, culturally, or individually defined (Battiste, 2010; Shields, Edwards & Shayani, 2005).

There are several important questions to ask about any statement of educational goals:
•     Are the goals mutually compatible?
•     Are the goals achievable?
•     Do the goals have a commonly shared meaning?
•     Do the goals affect what schools do on a day-to-day basis?
Before discussing these questions more fully, consider the list of goals in Box 1.1. Although this particular set is drawn from Prince Edward Island, most provinces and many school systems would have quite similar goal statements.


There is no guarantee that all the goals on any list can be achieved at the same time. It may be that achieving one purpose will necessarily be at the expense of another. There is only so much time, energy, and resources. If one of our goals is to make students physically fit, the time spent on fitness cannot also be spent on, say, reading, yet goal statements rarely suggest any order of priority among their multiple objectives.


BOX 1.1 Statement of Goals for Education in Prince Edward Island

The goals of public education are to enable the student to:
•     develop an appreciation for learning, an intellectual curiosity, and a desire for lifelong learning;
•     develop the ability to think critically, apply knowledge, and make informed decisions;
•     acquire the basic knowledge and skills necessary to comprehend and express ideas through the use of words, numbers, and other symbols;
•     develop an understanding of the natural world and of the applications of science and technology in society;
•     acquire knowledge about the past and an orientation to the future;
•     develop an appreciation for one’s own heritage and a respect for the culture and traditions of others;
•     develop a sense of self-worth;
•     develop a respect for community values, a sense of personal values, and a responsibility for one’s own actions;
•     develop a sense of pride and respect for one’s community, province, and country;
•     develop a sense of stewardship for the environment;
•     develop creative skills, including those in the arts, and an appreciation of creativity in others;
•     develop skills and attitudes related to the workplace;
•     develop good mental and physical health and the ability to creatively use leisure time;
•     acquire a knowledge of the second official language and an understanding of the bilingual nature of the country;
•     develop an understanding of gender equity issues and the need to provide equal opportunities for all;
•     develop an understanding of fundamental human rights and an appreciation for the worth of all individuals.

Source: Prince Edward Island (2012-2013). Education Handbook for School Administrators. Available at http://www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/eecd_admin12-13.pdf

Most school system goals are very ambitious, and it is reasonably clear that doing them all at a high level would take more time and energy than is currently available. Thus, a school system is always faced with the problem of having to decide which goals should get how much emphasis. For instance, does it place its energy into improving mathematics, expanding multicultural awareness, improving students’ commitment to healthy living, or emphasizing critical thinking?
More fundamentally, purposes and goals may be logically inconsistent with one another, such that pursuing goal x means, by definition, not pursuing goal y. For example, one common goal of schools is to teach students to think critically and to make their own decisions, while another common goal is to teach students to appreciate some of the basic values of our society, such as patriotism or respect for others. But what if a student, after thinking about it, decides that s/he does not want to be patriotic or to respect others? Are educators prepared to say that, because the student has formed an independent opinion, he is free to disregard social conventions? Probably not. One of the basic tensions in schooling is between our desire to help individuals learn to think for themselves and our desire to have those individuals develop the same basic attitudes and values as everyone else in our society. It is not possible to maximize both of these goals at the same time; the same logic applies to numerous other mutually conflicting school goals. It is important to know how decisions are made as to which goals will be prioritized, and to question whose interests those decisions serve.


It is one thing to write down a goal, and quite another to be able to accomplish it. It is doubtful that schools can achieve all the goals set for them, even if there is agreement on what those goals are. Knowledge about how people learn and about how to teach them is, and always will be, limited. There are many things schools would like to do, but we don’t know how. As an example, consider the very basic skill of learning to read. Some children learn to read almost effortlessly, while others learn only with considerable difficulty and still others do not learn to read well at all. Learning differences exist not because teachers or students aren’t trying, but because, although we know much about the reading process, we can never fully know which strategies will optimize the learning of particular children, and we are therefore often only partially successful in teaching them.

If teaching students to read presents difficulties, it is even harder to teach values, such as an appreciation of the worth of all individuals or love of learning. Of course, just because educators aren’t sure how to accomplish something does not mean they should stop trying. It is important to set our sights high and to expect a great deal from ourselves. But setting many goals we do not know how to achieve is likely to create considerable frustration.

Shared Meaning

A statement of goals is an attempt to generate agreement among many people as to what schools should do. In education, there is currently much talk about creating a “shared vision,” which also requires agreement on aims and purposes. But, as we have already noted, there may be quite a bit of disagreement among and between parents, students, teachers, and others as to what the schools should do. Some students, for example, especially in secondary schools, place high value on preparing for jobs.  Some teachers may place more emphasis on goals such as developing positive personal habits and attributes while others might emphasize post-secondary educational opportunities. Some parents want a great deal of emphasis placed on reading and writing skills, while others want more emphasis on the arts or sciences. Some parents want their children to be exposed to many different ideas, while others want schools to reinforce the values of the home.

Such different priorities have significant implications for the way schools and teaching are organized. To place more emphasis on preparing for jobs, for example, schools could increase the amount of vocational and technological education, or provide work-experience opportunities for students. On the other hand, placing more emphasis on academic skills might involve cutting back in the above areas and allocating more time and resources to areas dealing with reading, writing, information search skills, and so on. Different goals should lead to different kinds of activities.
One way schools try to cope with the differences in people’s desired goals is to smooth them over with language. Thus, a statement of goals can be worded in such a way as to generate agreement, even if people would not agree on what the statements mean in practice. As long as the discussion stays at the level of words, the disagreement can be hidden. Often this approach works reasonably well in allowing people to move ahead with their work instead of spending endless time debating purposes, but it can also lead to the perpetuation of unfair and ineffective practices.

Impact on Practice

It is one thing to espouse a goal and quite another to be able to put that goal into practice. The gap between goals and practices exists because it is so difficult to align our behaviour with our ideals. Given that schools are in the “people business,” and that at the heart of the educational enterprise are people’s dreams for their children or the youth of the nation, it is not surprising that discrepancies develop between thought and action in school organizations. 

An important aspect of this discrepancy is the acknowledgment that while school systems may talk about success for all students the historical record is that schools have not met this goal. Throughout Canada’s history, some students, whether those from poor families, recent immigrants, Aboriginal people, women, people in isolated communities or others, have often had less access to high quality schooling and less opportunity to fulfill their potential. 
These issues are increasingly evident in Canadian education and are a concern for schools and districts (Glaze, Mattingley & Levin, 2012).  The excerpts from the Toronto District School Board policy statement on equity shown in Box 1.2 offers an example of how a school district recognizes the significance of systemic biases within Canadian society and Canadian schools and tries to ensure equity of opportunity and equity of access to its educational programs, services, and resources.



BOX 1.2 Equity Foundation Policy of the Toronto District School Board


The Toronto District School Board values the contribution of all members of our diverse community of students, staff, parents and community groups to our mission and goals. We believe that equity of opportunity, and equity of access to our programs, services and resources are critical to the achievement of successful outcomes for all those whom we serve, and for those who serve our school system.

The Board recognizes however, that certain groups in our society are treated inequitably because of individual and systemic biases related to race, colour, culture, ethnicity, linguistic origin, disability, socioeconomic class, age, ancestry, nationality, place of origin, religion, faith, sex, gender, sexual orientation, family status, and marital status. Similar biases have also impacted on Canada’s aboriginal population. We also acknowledge that such biases exist within our school system.

The Board further recognizes that such inequitable treatment leads to educational, social and career outcomes that do not accurately reflect the abilities, experiences and contributions of our students, our employees, and our parent and community partners. This inequitable treatment limits their future success and prevents them from making a full contribution to society.

The Board is therefore committed to ensuring that fairness, equity, and inclusion are essential principles of our school system and are integrated into all our policies, programs, operations, and practices.

The Board will therefore ensure that:
(a)  The curriculum of our schools accurately reflects and uses the variety of knowledge of all peoples as the basis for instruction; that it actively provides opportunities for all students to understand the factors that cause inequity in society and to understand the similarities, differences and the connections between different forms of discrimination; and that it helps students to acquire the skills and knowledge that enable them to challenge unjust practices, and to build positive human relationships among their fellow students, and among all members of the society.
(b) All our students are provided with equitable opportunities to be successful in our system; that institutional barriers to such success are identified and removed; and that all learners are provided with supports and rewards to develop their abilities and achieve their aspirations.
(c)  Our hiring and promotion practices are bias-free, and promote equitable representation of our diversity at all levels of the school system; that all our employees have equitable opportunities for advancement; that their skills and knowledge are valued and used appropriately; and that they have equitable access to available support for their professional development needs.
(d) The contributions of our diverse community of parents and community groups to our schools are valued and encouraged; and that they are provided with equitable opportunities for working with staff and with each other for the benefit of all students.
(e)  Students, employees, parents and community partners are provided with effective procedures for resolving concerns and complaints which may arise from their experiences of unfair or inequitable treatment within the school system.
(f)  Financial and human resources are provided to support the work of staff, students, parents and community groups, and for staff development, in promoting equity and inclusion in the school system.
(g) Procedures are in place at all levels of the system for implementing, reviewing and developing policies, programs, operations and practices which promote equity in the system, for assessing their effectiveness, and for making changes where necessary.

Source: Toronto District School Board (2000). Equity foundation statement and commitments to equity policy implementation. Toronto: Toronto District School Board.


The fact that goals are hard to define and difficult to achieve should not be taken to mean that the effort to do so is fruitless. Important decisions about education are made every day by students, teachers, administrators, school trustees, and others. These decisions need to be based on some sense of direction and purpose, despite all the difficulties in doing so. The goals may evolve, and they may never be fully achieved, but they remain a beacon in our day-to-day efforts.



One way to think of public schools is in terms of a series of characterizing attributes or elements. For example:

1.   Public accessibility. All persons of school age should have a right to free access to schooling.
2.   Equal opportunity. All children should receive equal opportunity to benefit from schooling, regardless of factors such as their culture, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and so on.
3.   Public funding. The costs of schooling should be borne by government so that the quality of schooling received by a student is not related to the ability of the student or their parents to pay for that schooling.
4.   Public control. Decisions about the nature of public schools are made through public political processes, by persons who are elected at large to carry out this responsibility.
5.   Public accountability. Public schools act in the interests of the public and are answerable to the public for what is taught and for the quality of the experiences provided to students.

Most people would probably agree with these characteristics in principle, but what they might mean in practice is much less evident. As Canadians have struggled with them in specific situations, a number of ongoing tensions or dilemmas have arisen—areas where trying to recognize one reality leads us away from another that may be equally important. Much of the history of Canadian education can be seen as an effort to find an appropriate but always temporary balance between these competing objectives. Five tensions are particularly important: uniformity and diversity, stability and change, individuality and collectivity, centralization and decentralization, power and equality.

Uniformity and Diversity

The first tension is between the desire to have a common education system for all, and the recognition that students and communities are quite different from one another and may therefore have different educational needs.

In many ways, despite the variety of school systems, present-day schools in Canada are remarkably similar to one another in their internal appearance: classrooms full of desks or tables, generally empty hallways, libraries and/or computer labs, gyms, administrative offices, and almost always groups of students of about the same age who are engaged in some activity that is directed and supervised by a single adult.
Students everywhere in Canada study quite similar material, which is divided into subjects. They have to learn certain material on which they are tested, and their progress through the system depends largely on how well they do on various assessment measures. Children are judged individually and do the vast bulk of their work as individuals. Though curricular and pedagogical developments advocate for more student engagement in their own learning and assessment, students usually still have very little say in shaping the nature of their education. Innovations continually surface but they are not pervasive in the system and their effectiveness is under-researched (Levin, 2011).  Rather, classrooms still tend to be teacher centered, with students playing a largely passive role in the whole process. The school day is about the same length and covers about the same hours of the day almost everywhere.

While these similarities are quite consistent, even to the point of crossing national boundaries, schools are found in diverse settings. Consider the differences in setting, students’ background, and community influences between a school in a very small community in the high Arctic and one in the suburbs of a large city.   In the former, people know each other well and are isolated in many ways from other places and people, though teachers may come and go frequently.  In the latter, there is much more mobility, anonymity and diversity among the students. 

It is clear that the conditions of learning and the job of teaching can vary greatly across settings, even though the schools themselves may be structured in quite similar ways. There can be no single right way to organize schools and schooling. Different students and communities may well require different educational approaches. There will be substantial disagreement about how best to organize and conduct schooling to meet these needs. It is also possible to conceive of ways of conducting schooling that are quite different from those in common use. Yet there is surprisingly little debate about many basic aspects of schooling that are shared by all kinds of schools and communities.

Stability and Change

The second tension concerns the degree to which schools should change to meet changing needs or should remain constant to a set of educational ideals and practices. Most of us tend to think of schools as having always been the way they are now. There is much in schools today that is easily recognizable to the student of 50 years ago. But in other respects, schools have changed in significant ways as the society around them has changed. Until the last century, schools were primarily private or church affiliated, and they charged fees that many could not afford. In the mid-nineteenth century a number of countries began to introduce free and universal public education. Historians have different views about why this occurred. Some see the development of schooling as part of societal progress. Others believe that mass schooling was developed in order to ensure that the new factories and industries had an adequate supply of workers who were both skilled and trained in habits of obedience to authority.

Not that long ago, in many areas, the church remained a key provider of education. Most communities were rural, and each rural community had its own school. As new communities developed, people formed a school board, built a school building (often with their own hands), hired a teacher (who typically taught eight or more grades in a single room), and operated the school. Control was very much in the hands of the local parents, or more particularly the fathers, since most school trustees were men. Teachers, usually unmarried women, were not well trained and were very poorly paid.

Gradually, these conditions have changed. Power has shifted away from local parents and communities. Small school districts have largely disappeared in Canada, usually as a result of government legislation, and have been replaced by much larger school districts, which are generally run by professional administrators. Manitoba, for example, had more than 2 000 school districts in the early 1950s but currently has less than 40. While school boards still exist, many are now responsible for running large and complex organizations that may have thousands of teachers, as well as huge budgets. For example, the largest school districts now have more than 100,00 students while others cover many thousands of square kilometres. In this kind of setting, each school trustee may represent thousands of people. Schools are also larger. Thus, schools have changed from being small and local to being large and bureaucratic in their organization, though they may still be administered largely by males, still be staffed predominantly by women, and still give almost no meaningful role in governance to students.

Another important change is that more people are getting more formal education than ever before. Not so many years ago, grade 8 was the common finishing point for many people and the mark of someone with a reasonable level of education. Now those with less than grade 9 may be classified as being functionally illiterate (although one might well question the accuracy of such a standard), and high school graduation no longer guarantees a comfortable lifestyle. Formal education and its credentials have become much more important elements in the organization of modern society.

Finally, the development of the Internet and the technology with access to it has had a tremendous impact on schooling.  Easy access to and storage of information, alternative modes of delivery, and development of social networking continue to transform our ways of working and learning.  Most of these changes, significant as they were, are now taken for granted. We seldom ask ourselves whether they have produced the desired results, or whether they imply that we ought to change the way we conduct formal education. Somehow, the way we have organized schooling continues to persist amidst changing social conditions and technological advances. 

Individuality and Collectivity

Schools across Canada have always faced difficulties with trying to individualize their work while fostering the collective interests of all those who are served by the education system.  Perhaps the example that most effectively illustrates this concept is the drive to individualize instruction.  Teachers struggle daily with trying to meet the needs of the individuals in their classrooms, yet they also know that they are responsible for the collective interests of the group.  In their attempts to find a balance, it is sometimes suggested that many “teach to the middle,” thereby underserving the needs of students who are struggling to learn and those who are not challenged enough.  In school discipline cases, administrators often struggle with creating equitable consequences for individual students while others demand that policies must be applied with “consistency.”  During the twentieth century, schools were built along factory models to house a larger collective of students and professionals and to provide more opportunities for programs and supports.  However, people can get “lost in the system” as decisions are made in the interests of the majority rather than the particular needs of individuals or under-served groups.  Educators can serve most people well most of the time; but it is hard to serve all of the people well all of the time. 

Centralization and Decentralization

As Canadian school systems have struggled with the right balance between centralization and decentralization.  The move towards consolidation and larger school systems has always been argued on the basis of increased efficiency and economies of scale.  The extent to which this has actually improved the quality of schools or learning, however, has not been established definitively.  Perhaps in response to some of this mass consolidation, the effective schools movement of the 1980’s advocated for “site-based management” which in effect was an attempt to decentralize some of authority from centralized systems.  As a consequence, schools became organized in large centralized systems, but individual schools were sometimes administered almost as “islands” unto themselves, which could have beneficial or deleterious effects depending on the issues in question.  The move to school councils and local school governance in the 1990’s and 2000’s was also an attempt to provide more local decision-making (Chan, Fisher & Robinson, 2007; Lessard & Brassard, 2008).  Today, calls for accountability and market-driven systems have strengthened a move to what is described as “centralized decentralization” within school organization (Blackmore, 2000).  Increasingly, decision-making has become concentrated at the centre, while the processes of implementation are decentralized at the local level.  Though this may seem like a good balance of power, Wallin, Anderson, and Penner (2009) found that such ways of organizing may put tremendous pressures on school principals who find themselves caught between school district and/or provincial directives and local community values and priorities.  Though some balance between centralization and decentralization is necessary, the difficulty lies in finding the right mix to foster both system efficiency and responsiveness to local context.

Power and Equality

Schools, like all organizations, are shaped by power relations. Some people have more influence over what happens than do others. Final authority over most aspects of schooling rests with elected officials in the provincial government or the local school board. Within any given school, administrators typically have the most official power. Principals can give instructions to teachers, students, and (sometimes) parents. Teachers have considerable power over students, but not very much over administrators. And students have almost no official power, although they can exercise quite a bit of informal influence when they want to. Where power exists, so does the potential for unfairness and abuse. It is important to ask at all times whether power is being used in the right way and to guard vigilantly against its abuse, no matter who the perpetrators or victims might be.

Much of the history of schooling in Canada has been marked by struggles over power and control from which enduring questions have emerged. How much authority would be held by laypeople (parents and community members) and how much by professionals (teachers, principals, and superintendents)? How much authority would rest at the local level in a community, and how much would rest with provincial governments? An important distinction can be made between representative democracy and participative democracy. The former implies that legitimacy is conferred on a central authority, such as Parliament, by the population and then held accountable to the population through the electoral process. The latter implies that the central requirement is that;

we develop institutions that attempt to make decisions by argumentative discourse as much as is practical and that invoke claims of sovereignty as rarely as possible. The principal aims are three: (a) to assert the merits of the better argument against power; (b) to assert the merits of equality and reciprocity against bureaucratic hierarchy; and (c) to assert the merits of autonomy and solidarity against domination and coercion. (Strike, 1993, p. 266)

Schools also are marked by inequality. Some schools are better staffed and equipped than others. Some teachers get better teaching assignments or more resources for their courses. Some students have more access to technology, optional programs, or extra-curricular activities. Some students get better marks, enjoy school more, and are more often granted school privileges than other students. Again, where there is inequality, there is the potential for abuse. We are not suggesting that everyone should be treated precisely the same at all times; that is both impossible and undesirable. Rather, it is important to ask whether the kinds of inequality that exist in schools are justifiable. Is it right (and, if so, why) that some students have more privileges, or can access differential levels of programs and/or supports than others? Such questions are important in analyzing the way in which schools are organized and how that organization affects those who come into their orbit.

Inequalities in schooling are not accidental. One job that schools have been expected to perform is allocating social roles, determining who will go to work for low wages and who will receive professional training. How is it possible to reconcile this purpose with the desire to have every student develop all the skills and competencies listed in the goals statement in Box 1.1? Indeed, some believe that failure is part of the mission of schooling:

Imagine what would happen if . . . the goals that educators and reformers officially seek were actually accomplished. All students would become top performers. All of them would make . . . perfect A records throughout their schooling. Chaos would ensue. Colleges would not have room for all, but would have little ground on which to accept some and reject others. Employers looking for secretaries, retail salespersons, waiters, bus drivers, and factory workers would have jobs unfilled as every student considered such work beneath his or her accomplishment.

As long as education is used to rank young people and sort them into occupational futures that differ substantially in the money, status, power, and intrinsic rewards they can yield, good education, or students’ success at education, must remain a scarce commodity. (Metz, 1990, p. 85)

The fact is that schooling in Canada and in other countries does produce unequal results. Some people do well, go on to higher education, earn higher incomes, and attain greater access to societal rewards, whereas others do not fit in with the school, fail or drop out, and end up in low-paying jobs. Worse still, societal rewards are not distributed only on the basis of talent. The nature of families, and particularly income levels and occupations, have a great deal of influence on how much education students receive, what kind of job they will have, and how much money they may earn. For example, university students in Canada (and in other countries) are much more likely to come from families with higher education and income levels than are community college students or those who leave school without any postsecondary experience.

This tension between the allocative and educative functions of schooling is another example of the point made earlier in this chapter about the problems schools face in attempting to develop creative, critical individuals while passing down the basic values of the culture. The conflict between these purposes is of enormous importance in understanding what schools do and how they are organized.



A final complication in the discussion of the goals and purposes of schooling has to do with its moral nature. Schooling is not simply a matter of teaching prescribed sets of knowledge and skills to students, although this is how it is often described. Rather, schooling is essentially concerned with introducing young people (and, increasingly, adults) to the nature of the world as we understand it, and equipping them to live and engage actively in that world—what we earlier called the development of self-knowledge. In this process, moral and ethical considerations are of fundamental importance, and students learn as much from how they are taught and treated in schools as they do from what they are taught. It is important for educators to consider which moral codes are affirmed within the school and whether others have been minimized and/or excluded as a consequence.  Every day, teachers and school administrators are acting as moral examples to students and one another, and are creating a community that embodies particular concepts of ethical behaviour. If some students are treated as unimportant, as people whose ideas and feelings are of no consequence, then they are more likely to see the world as one in which some people matter while others do not. If teachers embody respect for all students, for one another, for their subjects, and for the development of knowledge, then students are more likely to develop and value these qualities. According to Robert Starratt (2005), teachers:

illuminate that moral character of learning through an exposition of those moral virtues embedded in the very activity of authentic, integral learning. These virtues…are not a kind of value-added, icing-on-the-cake supplement to the more basic intellectual character of learning. On the contrary, they are essential for the very intellectual quality of learning; without them what passes for learning in schools is superficial, vacuous, artificial, make-believe, frivolous, and possibly dishonest….school leaders and all teachers need to evaluate what they do in the light of the moral character of learning…(p. 13)

There are obviously important technical skills to be learned about teaching. Teacher candidates are understandably anxious about their ability to manage classes, maintain order, and create reasonable learning experiences for students. But these skills are not meaningful unless they are tied to an ethical and moral view of teaching. When individuals think back to the teachers they had, they often see that the example set by good teachers had more impact on them, and is more vivid in their memory, than the subject matter taught.

Moral issues are not only embedded in the fabric of teaching, they are also integral to school organization and administration. Such matters as the division of schools into classes, grades, and ability levels, the assignment of work to students, or the awarding of marks and credits also have important moral dimensions.



The inconsistencies and tensions discussed in this chapter raise important questions. How do we work in an institution whose goals are uncertain, sometimes in conflict with one another, and perhaps unachievable? How do we decide what is worth our time and effort? Even more significantly, the idea that schools might actually require some students to fail—that this is a built-in part of what schools do—is a difficult one for many teachers who see their job as helping students to succeed. The shock value of the quotation from Metz (1990) lies in making us ask ourselves whether this quest for educational quality and equality can ever be totally successful, and whether the institution in which we work could survive if it were.

Some teachers probably don’t think about these issues very much. They just go on doing their daily work, help students as much as they can, and try to avoid the contradictions in the system. Other teachers come to the conclusion that they cannot do the things they value in schools as presently constituted, and they leave teaching. Some combine their teaching with active involvement in larger educational and social issues, whether through their professional association or through other kinds of volunteer work and public service. Others make up their minds to live with the frustration and inconsistencies because they continue to believe that their work is important, and that they can make a difference, even if only in their own classroom. In taking this position, teachers are embodying a concept of schools as institutions that are based fundamentally on moral considerations. A vision of the good school is intimately connected with a vision of the good society and the good life.



1.   Conduct a class discussion of the main changes in society that have an impact on the schools. Put together as broad a list as you can, but don’t forget to look at some of the changes that have had positive impacts.

2.   Find a goal statement from your province or a local school district. Compare it with the statement in Box 1.1. Does it embody the same sorts of problems noted in this chapter? Why or why not?

3.   Reread the goals statement in Box 1.1 while thinking back to your own experience as a student. Which of these goals would you say were regarded as important in your school? Which were de-emphasized, ignored, or even contradicted?

4.   Interview three or four people involved with schools either as students, teachers, or parents. Ask them what they see as being the most important purposes of schools. Compare their answers. How much agreement is there? What disagreements occur? Why?

5.   How are schools in your community accountable to the public? Talk to people in the schools about this issue, and compare your perception with theirs.

6.   Conduct an informal survey of people in your community as to the relative power held by teachers, principals, school trustees, and parents on such matters as the curriculum, teaching methods, or school rules. Analyze and try to explain the agreements or disagreements among your respondents.

7.   Do a survey of your university class to assess the occupations of your classmates’ parents. Compare their distribution with Canadian census data. Is your class broadly representative of the Canadian population? What are the differences?

8.  Consider the experiences of students you may have known whose backgrounds were very different from the majority of other students?  What was their experience with schooling in relation to relationships with others, academics, extra-curricular activities and engagement in schools?  What can teachers do to be more inclusive of these students?

9.   Discuss with a colleague the ways in which you have experienced power issues in schools? What was the nature of the power(s) at play, how did you know that the issue was about power, and what was the culmination of it?  At what times (or under what circumstances) is the use of power debilitating or facilitative?

10. Write a brief description of a teacher you remember as being particularly good. What made him or her a good teacher? Are these qualities that any teacher could develop? Why or why not?