Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

August 20, 2014 7:09 PM








































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































CHAPTER TEN: Prospects for Education (5th Edition)


“Well, I’ve finished my first year of teaching, and I’ve accomplished my two main goals. I’m still alive, and I’m not going to be fired.” Toni grinned at Aaron across their coffees. The school year had just ended, and this would be the last of their meetings until the fall. She had found their get-togethers every few weeks tremendously helpful because she got a chance to talk about her own feelings and frustrations about teaching, and she also learned from listening to her friend talk about his successes and tribulations. Their support for each other had helped both of them make it through their first year of teaching.

“I’m like you,” Aaron replied. “Early in the year I re-adjusted my expectations as to what I could accomplish. I realized that it would be hard enough just to do what was required, without getting fancy. But I have to say that by the spring I was feeling much more comfortable, and started to experiment with a few things. And I’m really looking forward to September. This year I just know I’ll be a lot more comfortable, and much more able to do the sorts of things I want in my class—things that are good for kids.”

“I agree. I do feel much better than I did in October.” Toni paused. “But you know, I’m not really sure whether I’ll stay in teaching for too many years.”

“Why is that?” Aaron asked. “After all the work of getting through university, you want to give it up?”

“I’m a person who has high standards, Aaron,” she replied. “I put a lot of effort into the things I do, and I want the results to reflect that. I worked really hard this year, and I think I did a pretty good job. But it wasn’t as good a job as I wanted to do. Teaching just seems to have so many constraints, and you have to make so many compromises. There’s so much trivial stuff to do that gets in the way of what’s really important. Just getting permission to have a field trip can take hours of time, never mind actually organizing the trip. I’m filling in reports when I should be thinking about the next day’s or week’s classes. There are too many kids we don’t seem able to reach. The ones who are really quiet, and even the ones who cause me so much aggravation—I really feel I could reach them if I had more time or fewer students. There are so many things happening in kids’ lives that the school can’t or won’t affect. They’re having to cope with tremendous changes all around them while we go blathering on about alliteration in poetry or photosynthesis or the causes of Confederation. Just this past week I had another kid whose parents are separating. How do I tell her just to put it aside and concentrate on her math? Sometimes I wonder if schools will ever be really educational places.”

“I suppose no institution or job is perfect,” Aaron said. “I can see all kinds of ways schools could be better, and all kinds of ways I could be a better teacher, too. I think that’s part of our responsibility—not just to work in our own classrooms, but also to try to be part of larger-scale improvements as well. In our school, the parent organization has really been working hard this year. At first there was quite a bit of friction with the staff, and we were nervous about what they would want us to do. They had a strong desire to have a better sense of how well kids were doing, which we thought meant they wanted lots of standardized testing. Over the course of a few meetings, we began to realize that they had a legitimate interest in finding out what kids were learning, and they realized that our concerns about standardized testing weren’t just self-protective. Now we’ve got a set of ideas about how we can give parents and the community more information about students’ achievement, and they have a better idea of what some of the limits on that information are. Of course, that wasn’t easy to do, but the result will be worth the effort.

“I guess that’s how I feel about lots of aspects of being a teacher,” he continued. “They’re tons of work, but don’t you feel that the challenge is an exciting one? Besides, you have so much talent at teaching that it would be a tremendous loss if you stopped.”

“Well, I’m not ready to quit yet. I’m planning to give it another couple of years before I decide. For one thing, I really enjoy being around the kids; most of them are great. It’s exciting to see them getting turned on by learning. And I’m excited about our new principal, who said some good things at our last staff meeting about plans for next year. It sounds as if she wants to get teachers much more involved in curriculum decisions, and work on within-grade and cross-grade co-operation in what we teach. She’s asked for our ideas about possible improvements. Naturally I have a long list, although I think I’ll give her a chance to catch her breath before I throw them at her, especially since I’m only finishing my first year. I don’t know where I’ll get the time to do these things, but it would sure be exciting if I could really be the kind of teacher I want to be and have the support of the school.”

“That’s the great thing about teaching,” Aaron laughed. “There’s always plenty of room for improvement.” 


The first nine chapters of this book have taken readers on a whirlwind tour of the organization and functioning of Canadian schools, and have attempted to review some of the main features and dynamics of the education system. We began Chapter One by saying that changes in Canadian society require not only that educators understand school organization as it exists in Canada, but also that we scrutinize it critically and ask questions about how it might be otherwise. Throughout the other chapters, we have tried to point out some of the constraints and limitations of current forms of school organization, and also to draw attention to the tensions and dilemmas inherent in schooling.

This final chapter focuses on the prospects for schooling in the coming years. It considers the forces and pressures on schools in Canada today and in the next few years, and some of the responses schools are trying to make. Problems in changing and improving schools are also discussed. A final section re-examines the role of the teacher in creating the best possible schools.



The ostensible work of schools—to educate children and young people—has remained unchanged for many years. However, the practical meaning of that task changes as conditions in the world change, and there can be no doubt that the world outside the schools has changed in important ways in the last few decades putting new pressures on schools and teachers.       Over the last 20 years, Canada has seen a great deal of debate about the quality of education and the need for improvement in schools. Critics complain of high drop-out rates, unchallenging curriculum, and declining performance by Canadian students on international tests. Much attention has focused on the growing importance of education for economic success and the need for better outcomes in the light of growing international competition for jobs and wealth. Critics of schools argue that if education is central to a country’s future, no country can be satisfied with its current level of achievement. Governments have used the same rhetoric to justify various policy changes.

Some commentators have argued that the complaints and fears of the critics are wrong, that schools are at least as successful as they have ever been, and that the criticism is motivated more by ideological prejudice against public services than by objective considerations of evidence. Canada’s performance on various international tests continues to be good, and virtually always better than our main economic challenger, the United States. Authors such as Ungerleider (2003) and Levin (2005, 2008) provide some of the strongest statements by Canadian defenders of schools, arguing that many of the claims made by critics—for example, about drop-out rates or the lack of skilled workers in the economy—are either exaggerated or completely false.

The debate over whether schools are “better” or “worse” than they used to be may be a fruitless one, just as is the debate over whether life today is better or worse than it was 30 or 50 years ago. It is probably more important and more useful to think about today’s schools in relation to today’s educational needs. 

Schools, whether in Canada or in other countries, have always been subject to considerable amounts of criticism. One can find complaints about the declining quality of education going back to the ancient Greeks, and in almost every generation since then. After all, expectations for public education are very high. People expect schools to do countless things, as was seen in our initial discussion in Chapter One of the goals of schools and the education system. Imparting knowledge is an important and primary purpose, but schools are also expected to teach attitudes, values, and behaviour in a whole range of areas. In a sense, schools are expected to make everyone perfect—a tall order indeed! When people see problems in society, they ask schools to try to prevent or stop them. Current examples include child abuse, drug abuse, nutrition, and violence.

In 1957, the United States National Education Association issued a pamphlet defending schools from several common criticisms that were then being voiced. Among these were:

•           that progressive education had taken over the schools;
•           that soft social programs were replacing intellectual work;
•           that all students were being promoted regardless of achievement;
•           that discipline was lax;
•           that too much attention went to average students at the expense of the gifted;
•           that moral values were being neglected;
•           that teacher training was of low quality and value (Levin, 1998b).

These criticisms of 1957 seem remarkably similar to those being made today, even though today’s critics would often see 1957 as “the good old days.”

Efforts to change and improve schools accompany such criticism. After all, the development of universal public schooling was itself a response to concerns that the population needed more schooling given changing economic and social conditions at that time. And ever since the development of public schooling more than 100 years ago, suggestions for its improvement have been made. Proposals for change have been quite diverse, however, because people’s goals for schools are also quite diverse. Nor have changes been easy to make even when it has been possible to agree on what should be done. A review of past efforts to change schools illustrates some of the challenges.



A discussion of the history of educational reform could begin at almost any point in Canadian history. Let us begin, however, with the late 1950s, a time when most people left school after eight or ten years, and the rate of high-school completion was still low (see Table 10.1). At this time, schools were criticized for not being intellectually challenging. Many critics argued that schools were too concerned with rote learning, that the curriculum was antiquated (with insufficient attention paid to the study of science), and that students did not learn to think enough. In the United States, which has often had a strong influence on Canadian education, a near-panic occurred when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite, thus becoming the first country to put such a spacecraft into orbit. As a result, the United States invested heavily in developing new curricula for schools in the sciences, most of which were also used widely in Canada in the 1960s (Gidney, 1999).

In the second half of the 1960s, educational policy took another turn. There were increasing concerns that education was too restrictive and that too many children were failing. The general trend of reform in this period was toward providing more flexibility and choice in the system, with fewer restrictions on students and teachers. The initial development of a more inclusive approach to special education in the 1960s was one response to these concerns.  The Hall-Dennis Commission in Ontario (Ontario, 1968) is regarded as one of the primary statements of this new approach to schooling.

The introduction of open-area elementary classrooms, and the associated concepts of team teaching and continuous progress, were other examples of educational reform. In high schools, programs were also liberalized. Students were given more choice of subjects, and efforts were made to reduce the rigid distinctions among tracks in the high school. Curriculum processes were also altered to give schools and teachers more autonomy in defining what students would study. The first codes of rights for students were developed, and students themselves took a more politically active role, demanding a greater voice in the direction of their own education. The inspection functions of provincial departments and ministries of education, along with the requirements for provincial examinations, were reduced or abolished. These developments carried forward well into the 1970s.

By the mid-1970s, however, the mood had altered. Governments were coming under increasing pressure as the optimism about solving social problems such as poverty began to fade. Public funds for education and other purposes, plentiful in the 1960s, were less so in the 1970s. Gradually, the mood of expansion and change was replaced by a mood of contraction and conservatism. Increasing concerns—about students’ lack of basic skills, and about the need for schools to return to earlier ways—eliminated the reforms of the 1960s.

This mood continued, and indeed intensified, during the 1980s and 1990s. Fiscal restraints on schools became tighter than ever before. In some provinces, funding to schools was actually cut for the first time in decades. Provincial governments, which had reduced controls over teachers, schools, and school districts, began to reinstitute central policies in a number of areas (Bedard & Lawton, 2008). Many provinces reintroduced or extended provincial examinations, and many developed other kinds of student assessment programs to try to measure what students were learning. Curriculum choices for students were reduced. The package of changes can be thought of as an attempt to improve schools by having more controls over what was done and how it was done.

Table 10.1 Educational Attainment in Canada, 1961-2001 (percentage of population 15 and over by level of education)*


Less Than Grade 9

Grades 9–13

At Least Some Postsecondary

















* The data on educational attainment for 2011 is reported by Statistics Canada is a different format. In 2011, 12.7% of the Canadian population between the ages of 25 and 64 did not have a high school diploma or equivalent, 23.2% had a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment and 64.1% had some level of post-secondary education. [Statistics Canada (2003) Education in Canada: Attainment, Field of Study and Location of Study. (Cat. No. 99-012-XIE2011001)

Source: Adapted from Statistics Canada (1989). Educational Attainment of Canadians. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, and Statistics Canada (1995); Statistical Profile of Canada (Cat. No. 95–359), p. 16. 2001 data from Statistics Canada-Education-Educational Attainment www.statcan.ca.

This trend continued during the 1990s. However, it was coupled with another set of reform proposals, borrowed largely from the current literature on private-sector management, that emphasize the decentralization of certain authority and provide more autonomy to local schools to manage their own affairs within a centrally established framework. Under various names, such as “empowerment” or “school-based management,” these proposals sought a significant shift in authority away from provincial governments and bureaucratic systems toward local communities. Sometimes these ideas were coupled with a desire to make education more like the market system, with schools having to compete with one another for students and funds (Leithwood & Earl, 2000, Portelli & Solomon, 2001).
      Since the millennium (2000), disputes have continued between those who seek a more conservative and narrower school system and those who see an expanded role for schools that goes well beyond traditional learning and preparation for work.  School systems across Canada have embraced both dimensions at various times, while also seeking to manage increasing pressures in other areas, as discussed below. We have noted already that school reform is both politically contested – not “inevitable” – and often linked to changing social conditions. Before looking in more detail at current reform agendas for schooling, then, it is useful to consider some of the main social changes that are affecting schools today.



While immediate changes in education policy tend to get a great deal of attention, the most important influences on schooling come from larger and longer-term shifts in Canada and the world. As noted at the beginning of this book, educational changes in Canada are increasingly linked to changes in demographics, economics, social structure, and technology. Schools are strongly affected by these larger societal shifts, as can be seen by looking at a few of them. 


Demographics can be defined as the composition of a population, including such factors as age, sex, marital status, ethnicity, and so on. Several demographic changes in Canadian society have had and continue to have important implications for schools. Particularly important among these are the diminishing number of people with school-age children, changes in gender roles, changes in the structure of families, and changes in the ethnic composition of Canadian society, especially given changing attitudes towards population diversity.

The school-age population in Canada dropped dramatically during the 1970s, from just under 6 million in 1971 to under 5 million by 1985, a decline of about 15 percent (Canadian Education Statistics Council, 1990). It is no coincidence that the 1960s, with their growing school enrollments, were a period of considerable optimism about education, while more recent times, characterized by stable or falling enrollments, have been much less optimistic. To take just one way in which numbers affect the climate of opinion, remember that for every school, the cost per student is strongly influenced by changes in enrollment. Thus, the rapid increases in per-capita spending in the 1970s were largely a result of a decline in enrollment. However, this type of data was used by some critics of education to reinforce their position that costs were skyrocketing while results were seen to be, at best, static.

But demographic change is important not simply because of the declining numbers of students in classrooms. The proportion of adults who had direct contact with schools also decreased. Fewer students mean fewer parents who are informed about what schools are doing, and about how public money is being spent. This also means that there are more people in the country paying education taxes who have no immediate stake in the schools. On top of these facts, an aging population has resulted in greater pressures being placed on governments to provide other kinds of public services, such as personal-care homes, health care, and pensions. So while education budgets face pressure the political constituency most likely to support spending on schools—parents—has also declined in numbers and in relative importance.

Other demographic changes have placed increased responsibilities or pressures on the school system. A particularly important change has been the increase in the numbers of women, including those with young children, who have taken on part-time or full-time employment in the last forty years. In 2009 some 72.9% of women with children under the age of 16 living at home were in the labour force compared to 39.1% in 1976. For mothers of children under the age of three the comparable figures are 64.4 per cent in contrast to 27.6 percent in 1976 (Statistics Canada, 2013a). The work of sustaining families and communities, which was traditionally performed without recognition or salary by mothers, is increasingly being done by paid staff such as child-care workers and social service agency workers (although women still carry the great share of this burden, both at work and in the home). At one time, many schools depended on mothers being at home, but this is no longer the case. The child-care function of schools is considerably more important than it was 30 years ago. The rapid increase in kindergarten enrollment in Canada and more recently the increasing provision of full day education for 4 and 5 year olds, plus the increasing presence of daycares in schools are reflections of the increased demand for child care.

Teachers are also very aware of the changing structure of families. There are now fewer children in most families, which may significantly change the ways in which parents interact with their children. Although the family of father, mother, and two children was never as typical as some textbooks suggested, it has become steadily less typical. The 2011 census reported, for example, that more than16% of all families are single-parent families, and that more than 8o% of those single parent families are headed by women. (Statistics Canada, 2013b)
Many teachers seem to feel that single-parent families create problems for children in school, but the evidence is that poverty—which will be considered further shortly—is the real villain, as well over half of such families live below the poverty line (Ross, Scott, & Kelly, 1996a). On average, women still earn much less than men in Canada, and there is very strong evidence that women end up economically worse off than men after marriage breakup. Single-parent families headed by men are much less likely to be poor.

The increased presence of women in the labour force is only one dimension of the influence of gender in schools.  As noted earlier, most teachers are female while most principals are still male.  Students, especially in adolescence, are trying to understand their own gender identities, creating many issues for schools in areas such as sex education, access to birth control, dress codes, bullying and sexual harassment (Ferfolja, 2013).  Because parent and public attitudes to these matters can be highly emotional, schools may face very challenging situations.

Another important feature of demographic change in Canada has to do with the increasing diversity of the school population and their families in Canada. Many classrooms are much more heterogeneous today, in terms of ethnicity, prior achievement, attitude toward school, and other factors, than they were a couple of decades ago, with consequent challenges for teachers and for school organization (Riffel, Levin, & Young, 1996). Consider two aspects of this increasing diversity. Rates of natural increase among Canada’s Aboriginal populations are significantly higher than the population as a whole and the Aboriginal population is also considerably younger, on average, than the non-Aboriginal population. In 2011 the median age for Canada’s Aboriginal population was 28 years – more than ten years less than that of the Canadian population as a whole that stood at 41 years (Statistics Canada, 2014a). This means that an increasing proportion of students in Canadian schools, especially in western and northern Canada, will be Aboriginal, which should have important implications for curricula, teacher training and development, school governance, and a host of other aspects of schooling.

In addition, Canadian immigration patterns have changed. Two-thirds of Canadian immigrants in recent years have come from Asia, Africa, and South America rather than from Europe (Statistics Canada, 2003). Especially in large cities, classrooms are increasingly heterogeneous in their ethnic make-up, with more children from visible minorities. Teachers, especially in urban schools, may have substantial numbers of students whose first language is not English, and whose culture, or whose parents’ culture, is quite different from the dominant culture in Canada. Schools will face pressures to ensure that these students, like others, are receiving appropriate education from knowledgeable and concerned teachers. The challenge is more difficult because there are still relatively few Canadian teachers drawn from the ranks of ethnic minority groups (Ryan, Pollock, & Antonelli, 2009). Cultural differences also create new issues for schools in their dealings with parents and communities whose values may be quite different from those espoused by the school. Because ethnic communities tend to be concentrated in particular parts of a city, some schools and classes will need to be particularly sensitive to these issues. For example, Moslem or African-Canadian or Aboriginal parents may be interested in special programs, or religious services, or even separate schools for their children in order to support their sense of cultural identity. A number of projects of this sort are in place in various Canadian cities. The charged debate about funding of private schools is also partly related to issues of diversity as ethnic or religious groups look for schooling opportunities for their children while other people strongly favour schools that do not cater to any particular population.

Another emerging feature of population diversity has to do with sexual identity.  Over the last twenty years there has been increasing recognition, in practice and in law, of the equality rights of gay, lesbian, transgender and other sexual minorities (we use LGBT as shorthand for a range of different identities), including the right of such couples to have or adopt children.  Every school will have some children with different sexual identities.  However current evidence is that LGBT students continue to face harassment, bullying and discrimination in schools, with much higher rates of depression and attempted suicide.  Schools are slowly making efforts to serve these students more effectively, but much remains to be done.

In Canadian society as a whole, both law and public attitudes are giving increasing preference to the struggle to provide equality given these various forms of diversities.  Canada prides itself on being a multicultural, diverse and tolerant society, and compared to many places we are that.  But most minority groups in Canada, whether around language, ethnicity, gender or other forms of identity, would say that they still face unfair treatment and hostile attitudes.  And reasonable people can and do disagree about what forms and how much accommodation is reasonable.  The search for equality in the midst of diversity remains vital yet contentious, a key element of the Canadian experience. 


Economic and Labour Force Changes

Criticism of schools and proposals for reform tend to follow broader economic cycles. When economic times are good, people tend to criticize the schools for being too conservative and restrictive. In the 1960s, at a time of prosperity, the call was for schools to become more open, liberal, and relevant. In the 1980s and 1990s, with a less optimistic economic outlook, the demands on schools were largely reversed. The last few years in Canada have not been a period of economic optimism. There is much talk about global competitiveness, about the dangers to our standard of living, and about the finite nature of our natural resources. Thousands of jobs are lost, entire industries disappear, and people go through wrenching changes as part of what is called “global economic restructuring.”

As noted earlier, much of the criticism of schools, not only in Canada but also in many other countries, is related to fear that each country will suffer economically unless it can create and maintain very high education levels. Whether these fears are accurate is, however, debatable.

The Canadian economy has changed greatly in the past 30 years, although generally these changes have occurred rather slowly. Over the long term, though, the changes are very significant. For much of its history, Canada was once an agricultural nation. In 1911, agriculture accounted for 35 percent of employment in Canada, but in 2013 it provided only some 2 percent of the jobs. Manufacturing, which grew significantly in the first half of this century, has also been declining in relative importance and in 2013 accounted for only 10% of employment in Canada, while service activities  (e.g., banking, transportation, personal and public services) have grown to account for almost 75% of all employment (Statistics Canada, 2014).These trends have important implications for education.

One assumption often made about schools is that increasing the education level of the population will result in economic growth. But the Canadian population is vastly more educated today than it was 30 years ago, and has more schooling per capita than most other countries, and yet our overall economic situation does not appear to have improved by any commensurate amount. Education is an important element in a country’s economic development, but it is only one element. The economy must also be able to provide jobs for educated people. At various times in recent years unemployment in Canada has been high, especially among young people, including those with a good education. In addition, about a quarter of Canadian workers report that they are underemployed—that is, they have more skills than are required in their job (Livingstone, 2004). In some areas, demand has exceeded the supply of people with appropriate training, but in other areas—including law, advanced science, and, at times, engineering, nursing, and teaching—the supply has exceeded the demand, leaving highly educated people unemployed or underemployed, and prompting some of them to emigrate. These shifts can take place fairly rapidly, so that the surplus of nurses and teachers that Canada was experiencing in the 1990s turned into a shortage in the year 2005. Young people may have left their home province or country because there was no work, yet now there are jobs going unfilled in these same occupations.

In some areas, employing highly educated people may be associated with a loss of jobs as workers are replaced by technology. Employment in agriculture is a good example; an industry in which many fewer people produce vastly more food than was the case 50 years ago. In industry, too, jobs are being replaced by new technologies. Canada has always exported considerable numbers of highly educated people because there are no jobs for them here, or because they can earn more elsewhere. Another frequently cited trend is that most new jobs will require a high level of education and that there will be no work for the high-school drop-out or even the high school graduate. However, analysts are divided on this matter. While some believe that overall skill requirements in the economy are increasing, others believe that the labour market is being divided into two segments. One sector is characterized by stable, high-paying jobs that require advanced levels of education; a second, larger sector is characterized by boring or dangerous work, poor pay, and very limited benefits for a large segment of the population (Silver, 2014).

The fact that a job requires sophisticated technology does not mean that the operator is highly paid to use it. The retraining of secretaries in the use of computer equipment and the extensive use of technology in retail sales and restaurants are two situations in which more technology use has not led to higher pay or more independence at work. Many of the new jobs created in Canada in recent years have been low-skill, low-paying, part-time jobs with few or no benefits, and women are most likely to hold such jobs. The decline of unionization means that fewer jobs have pensions or good benefits.  When analyzing changes in the labour force, it is vital to move past glib generalizations about, say, service jobs versus manufacturing jobs, and to consider how specific occupations and industries are changing (Osberg, Wien, & Grude, 1995).

Direct job skills are not the entire picture. Schools are also frequently told by employers that students need to learn to be punctual, polite, independent, and reliable as well as creative and entrepreneurial – things that are often called ‘21st century skills’. Indeed, schools justify some of their discipline practices by referring to labour force demands. But jobs are changing in other ways as well. For example, a large number of jobs involve working in teams or working co-operatively with others. As the demand for workers with these abilities increases, schools may need to pay more attention to developing related skills. The Conference Board of Canada developed an “employability skills profile” that focuses on three sets of skills: fundamental skills such as communicating, managing information, and problem-solving; personal management skills such as responsibility and ongoing learning; and teamwork skills (Conference Board, 2000, http://www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/education/learning-tools/employability-skills.aspx). This list is quite different from the standard high-school curriculum.

Two other labour market issues are worth noting. First, it is very difficult to predict labour force requirements more than a few years in advance. The market for jobs is itself affected by many developments, including the overall state of the economy; changes in technology; changes in the economies of other countries; and political developments such as trade agreements or wars. Canada, like other countries, has a history of labour market forecasts that turned out to be wrong; indeed, forecasts that assume that present trends will continue indefinitely are almost certainly wrong.  So when we read that the economy will require lots more of some occupation, our initial reaction should be skepticism.

Second, the Canadian economy, and hence the labour market, is regional. The economy can be booming in British Columbia and slumping in Nova Scotia at the same time. Aboriginal communities have often remained economically depressed through all the ups and downs of the southern economy. The requirements for skilled workers and the overall availability of jobs can be quite different from one region to another, with obviously different implications for schools.

Although preparation for work is by no means the only task of schools, it is certainly a major expectation, and one that is held strongly by students. Schools have long been criticized for failing to pay enough attention to the large proportion of students who do not proceed to postsecondary education. Current knowledge does not clarify how schools can best discharge this responsibility. Should schools put more emphasis on preparing for work through vocational programs or co-op education? Or is this the responsibility of employers? Is the best strategy to provide an overall grounding in many areas, without much specialization in any, in the belief that this will give students the most flexibility? The answers are not obvious. Many analysts believe that most skills, general and specific, are acquired, either formally or informally, on the job rather than in schools. This suggests that education has its impact, if any, in helping people get a job, rather than in helping them do the job once obtained. Or perhaps formal education helps people learn on the job, suggesting an emphasis on “learning to learn” rather than on particular skills.  We do not really know how education relates to jobs in the long term, so we should be wary of glib answers to this question.



One of the most powerful, yet often neglected, influences on schooling is poverty. Family income is a very strong predictor of how well children will do in school. A great deal of research shows that poverty is related to lower achievement in school, to a greater risk of dropping out, and to lower eventual occupational status and income (Glaze, Mattingley & Levin, 2011). Completing high school and going on to postsecondary education in Canada are highly related to the education and income of parents; the higher one’s parents’ income, the more likely one is to finish high school and attend university (see Figure 10.1). These relationships are at least as strong as the relationship between measured ability and achievement. Indeed, given the very clear link between poverty and later social costs and problems, and given the considerable documentation on poverty in Canada, it is remarkable that so little policy attention in education has been given to the issue (Levin & Riffel, 2000).

Poverty has always been an issue in Canada, as the data on family incomes provided in Chapters Five and Eight illustrate. Over the past decade, the proportion of Canadian children under 16 who live in low-income families has fluctuated between 15 percent and 20 percent, making a total of more than 1.3 million children in such situations (National Council of Welfare, 2004). The proportions are substantially higher in some provinces, notably Newfoundland, Quebec, and Manitoba. Even during good economic years poverty remains a reality for many Canadians. Child poverty is also related to lone parent families. As noted earlier, female lone parents carry more of the financial responsibility for children while still facing major inequities in pay and work benefits, frequent difficulty in getting fathers to provide child support, and a shortage of quality, affordable day care. Increasing child poverty is also related to higher levels of unemployment, and the decline in the availability and value of social supports such as employment insurance and social assistance. However, being prepared to work hard by no means guarantees a reasonable income. Many families have two working parents yet are still low income because wages are simply not high enough.

Table 10.2 Percentage of the Population Aged 18–24 Attending University by Annual Parental Income, Canada, 1993–2001

Participation Rates












Less than $25 000






$25 000–$50 000






$50 001–$75 000






$75 001–$100 000






Over $100 000






Source: Adapted from the Statistics Canada publication, Participation in post-secondary education in Canada: Has the role of parental income and education changed over the 1990s? Catalogue 11f0019mie, Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, No. 243, February 16, 2005, p. 30.



Poverty creates many problems for schools as they are currently structured. As discussed in Chapter Eight, students may come to school with fewer of the skills that the school expects. Students may be preoccupied with physical and emotional needs, making it more difficult for them to concentrate on academic tasks. It may, as well, be harder for students to see the relevance of schooling in their lives when they live with so much hardship and success seems such a distant possibility.

There is a danger of schools using poverty as a rationalization for being unable to help students. Educators and policy-makers may assume that students from poor families cannot learn; failure thus becomes both expected and accepted. However, this is clearly a false and insidious presumption, and one that perpetuates inequality. Because poverty tends to be concentrated geographically, some schools have large numbers of students from low-income families while others have few or none; this increases the danger that schools may be stratified along socioeconomic status lines (Silver, 2014). There is evidence that education programs that address problems of poverty can result in increased success rates for students (Glaze, Mattingly & Levin, 2012; Knapp, 1995). In particular, success has come from efforts such as programs that help parents provide educational support to their children, school programs that stress high expectations while providing high levels of support, and when schools recognize and build on the strengths and resources that exist in all communities


Technology and Schools

Changes in technology are among the most apparent changes in Canadian society. When one compares our world today with the world of 50 years ago, the first differences that typically spring to mind are technological—cars, airplanes, video, the internet and so on. The technology used in education, and therefore of most relevance to schools, has also changed dramatically. When public schools first began, print was the only information technology available. Teachers either spoke to students or the students read. Today the situation is very different. Students have access to a huge range of learning resources on the internet, and more and more of these resources are in video or audio rather than in text.   Video differs greatly from text: it is regarded as more emotional, more wide-ranging, less subtle, and more immediate in its impact. Many students are intimately acquainted with these new technologies.

Computerization and the internet have also had enormous implications for education. Computers, which are steadily getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful, not only provide vastly increased access to information, they also change the way in which people handle and store information. To mention just a few examples, they allow people to communicate almost instantly with other people almost anywhere in the world at very low cost. They allow individuals ready access, from almost anywhere, to vast amounts of information. They provide the means for individuals to rearrange information to suit their needs, and to store it for ready retrieval. All of this can allow much more individualized learning, and much more learning at locations other than a school.

These technologies have also increased dramatically the social nature of learning, as they allow users to work together and communicate with each other easily and constantly. The rise of social media has changed the way people interact as well as who they interact with.  While one result is schools’ worry about students ‘cheating’, a much more important implication is that intellectual work is more social and less individual.

However, the impact of information technology on schools is still very much in doubt. There have been fifty years of predictions that technology would revolutionize schooling, yet little evidence that any such revolution, or even dramatic change, has taken place (Cuban, 2001).  This is so even though Canadian schools have made enormous investments of time and money in technology. Schools have also made great efforts to connect to the Internet and all its potential for communication and information. Most schools now have home pages on the World Wide Web, and students may regularly use the Net to communicate with other schools or as their primary source of research materials. Again, though, all this technology is typically used to supplement or enrich instruction rather than to change basic forms of teaching and learning.  Moreover, the research does not support the contention that greater use of technology will improve students’ learning; most studies show that use of technology has little or no effect on student outcomes (Tamim et al., 2011).

The original rationale for bringing technology into schools had to do with preparing students to deal with it in the workplace, and this rationale is still often stated. However, schools historically have not played a major role in preparing the public to understand technology. The major technologies of today, such as electricity, automobiles, and digital electronics, or, for that matter, tablets and smartphones, are widely used by people who know very little about how they work and who did not learn about them in school. Indeed, schools have traditionally been highly sceptical of technological change. For many years after the development of the ballpoint pen, for instance, schoolchildren were still required to learn to write with fountain pens. Schools also had a difficult time deciding what to do about pocket calculators. Schools and classrooms have not been radically reshaped by information technology, as many promoters claimed would happen. There is not much evidence yet that computers are changing the experience of schooling for most students in fundamental ways.

It is interesting to think about the intense effort in information technology in the light of the discussion in Chapter Five of alternative uses of resources. The investment in information technology has been substantially greater than that made in other options such as improved professional development for teachers or stronger links with parents despite a lack of evidence that information technology will produce better results than these other strategies


Lifelong Learning

As noted at the outset of this chapter, education has been given increasing prominence as the main vehicle through which societies are able to progress. The concept of education as “human capital,” a critical factor supporting development and growth, has taken on increasing prominence. In this regard the idea of lifelong learning has been actively promoted around the world. Like most general terms, this one can mean different things in different contexts; however, “lifelong learning” usually seems to involve the idea that people will need to continue to learn and develop new skills throughout their lifetimes, and that educational institutions will have to change in order to support this need.

There is a great deal of debate among researchers as to how much and in what ways learning demands in the society are actually changing. Some analysts point out the reality that many jobs in our economy continue to require low skill levels and relatively little thinking (Livingstone, 2004). However, as the data in Table 10.1 show, Canadians are more educated than ever before, and educated people are much more likely to seek still more education. As jobs change, many professionals will need ongoing opportunities to update or improve their knowledge and skills. We have already discussed the importance of ongoing professional development for teachers, and the same requirements clearly apply to people in many other occupations, such as nurses, engineers, or computer technicians. Even areas thought to be relatively unchanging, such as clerical or service jobs, may actually be deeply affected by changes in technology or work organization so that people have to develop quite different skill sets. Think of the impact of e-mail on the way communication occurs in many organizations today compared to the paper-based patterns of the past.

Ongoing learning for large numbers of people clearly poses an enormous challenge to employers, who will need to find ways to support the education of their workers, and also to our educational institutions, which have primarily been concerned with the initial education of young people. Adults returning to school require different kinds of curricula and different forms of delivery, such as part-time study. Adults are also much less likely to be accepting of all of the rules and procedures that tend to typify our institutions. Much debate is already occurring in Canada about the nature and appropriate response to the issue of lifelong learning (Rubenson & Schuetze, 2000).

An interesting example of the lifelong learning phenomenon concerns the growing number of adults seeking to return to school to complete credentials. The average age of students in community colleges is now between 25 and 30. In Manitoba a decade ago a relatively small change in provincial regulations led to more than 6000 adults returning to school to complete their high school diplomas. The province has now set up a network of Adult Learning Centres to provide combinations of literacy, high school completion, postsecondary programs, and training in ways that make use of principles of adult education and may generate better results among people whose first time around in school was not successful (Levin, 2005).


Values and Ideology

Because we project onto schools our hopes for society generally, views and criticisms of schools are heavily influenced by the prevailing climate of opinion in a society. Changes in this climate have had important implications for schools. For example, earlier in this chapter it was noted that ideas about school reform tend to follow economic cycles. When the economy is buoyant, proposals for schools stress greater openness, freedom, and liberalization. As economic conditions worsen, more conservative ideas about schooling come to the fore.

Thinking about education is significantly affected by other economic and social developments. One example of such a change is the conception of rights in Canada. It’s important to keep in mind that the whole idea that individual should have any rights is a relatively new one, going back only two or three centuries with the notion of children’s rights or student rights being much more recent. It was not so long ago that husbands essentially ‘owned’ their wives and parents ‘owned’ their children, and those ideas are still common in some parts of the world.  Growing attention to rights has had important effects on schools, whether through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, through the development of individual protections in collective bargaining agreements, or through a general shift in people’s view of what they are entitled to. Debates in Canada have also brought to the forefront the issue of collective rights, which are claimed in Canada particularly by Aboriginal peoples, francophones, and other ethnic groups (Kymlicka, 1998). Some of the most heated debates in education in Canada in recent years have been around how to accommodate group entitlements, whether those of the groups mentioned in the Charter or others.

Another shift in thinking that has been important for schools has been the change in the common conception of government. After World War II, and well into the 1960s, government was seen by many people as a good way to address social problems. The extension of education, and the development of pensions, family allowances, employment insurance, and medicare are all examples of Canadian governments acting to try to solve, or at least ameliorate, severe social problems.

In the last twenty or so years in Canada, as in other countries, faith in government has declined significantly. So, it might be added, has public faith in most other institutions, including churches, business, and the professions. However, in Canada, schools and teachers still retain a high level of public confidence, more than many other institutions (Roberts, Clifton, Ferguson, Kampen & Langlois, 2005). Table 10.3, drawn from a series of Canadian public-opinion polls, shows the relative change in public trust in Canadian schools from 1974 to 2000 (Roberts, Clifton, Ferguson, Kampen & Langlois, 2005), and shows that schools currently enjoy more public confidence than churches or banks. Nonetheless, it is worrying to many that voting rates have declined significantly in Canada, especially among young people, many of whom do not see politics as being a good way to shape their society for the better.
There is in general less public confidence today that major social problems can be solved by governments. Beginning in the late 1970s, claims were made that the free market was the best vehicle for addressing social problems. However, we have seen that the market has its own problems and limits, and is, like government, a very imperfect vehicle. Moreover, Canadian political traditions have always been more communitarian than those of the United States. This means that Canadians have tended to place more reliance on group or societal efforts, and somewhat less on the efforts of individuals.

The tendency to label all social developments as “problems” should perhaps be resisted. Changes can have positive impacts as well as negative ones, and it may take many years before a good picture emerges of the overall effect of a major economic or social change. Perhaps increasing public concern about the answers being suggested by large institutions is a good development that will cause people to think more about and take more interest in public policy decisions. Surely one of the outcomes of education ought to be to make people more inclined and better able to form their own opinions on important issues. The increased emphasis on both individual and collective rights, and on arguing against policies that are seen as harmful, could be regarded as an indicator of the success of past schooling. Yet these changes do create problems for the schools that then have a harder time maintaining public trust in their quality and integrity. Public willingness to take major steps in remedying social problems is also reduced to the extent that people no longer believe that such action will be effective.

Table 10.3: Confidence in Canadian Institutions; Percentage of People Responding “Great Deal” or “Quite a Lot” of Respect For, and Confidence In, Selected Canadian Institutions, 1974 – 2000.








Churches and religious organizations







Public Schools







Supreme Court














House of Commons







Political Parties







Large Corporations







Labour Unions







Source: Roberts et al. 2005, p. 436.

Public views about these broad issues do not simply arise spontaneously. Nowhere is the unequal distribution of power in society more evident than in the way in which ideas are handled. Almost all the major sources of news about public affairs—television, radio, newspapers, and magazines and most of the internet—are in private hands. Most of the organizations with the resources to mount extensive public-relations efforts are also in the private sector. There are far fewer important sources of public information that have as their wellspring a public agenda. The political agendas of those with wealth, then, are much more likely to be publicized broadly than are the political agendas of the poor and the dispossessed (Hart & Livingstone, 1998). Critics of the inequalities in Canadian society believe that disenchantment with government and institutions has served the interests of the wealthy and the powerful much more than it has served the poor.


System Complexity

To conclude this discussion of some of the many changes affecting schooling, it is important to point out that the changes are themselves interrelated. For analytic purposes, it is helpful to separate economic change from demographic change or political change. In reality, change in one sphere reverberates through all other spheres. Changing employment patterns affect incomes and family living arrangements, which in turn affect children’s school experience, which affects the economy, and so on. It is increasingly clear that children’s early experiences, especially from conception to age three or so, have powerful effects on their later school careers, but early childhood is itself shaped by parents’ occupation, income, and health. The relationships are intricate and immensely complicated. As well, the major institutions of society are linked in many ways. Schools are affected by a whole array of decisions made by governments (at all levels), health-care organizations, social services, employers, labour unions, and numerous other groups. These relationships go beyond a school district or province, or even the country as a whole. Changes in political and economic circumstances in other countries may have important implications for Canadian society as well as for Canadian schools. For example, low wages in Asia lead to jobs being exported from Canada, leading to the closing of important industries or employers in Canadian towns.  Or the rise of the internet reduces the demand for printing which results in the closing of pulp and paper mills across Canada.  Education is part of what might be called a worldwide ecology.

Schools alone have not been and will not be able to solve economic or social problems. Nonetheless, public schools are important institutions whose goals require them to be involved in the development of Canada as a whole. While schools may not be able to solve social problems, it is equally clear that they cannot ignore them, for students bring these issues into school. The pressures of changing demographics, changing economics, and changing values face every teacher and every school on a daily basis. Educators are increasingly aware of, and concerned about, the pressures being placed on schools by broader changes in Canadian society, such as those discussed in this chapter. In response, teachers and administrators see their ability to do their job being diminished by factors over which they feel they have little or no control. Current worries about violence in schools are an example of how wider social issues affect schools.



Given the diversity, complexity, and sometimes inconsistency of the social forces affecting schools, it is no surprise to learn that agendas for improving schools are also quite diverse. For example, an increasing literature in education policy and research argues that the improvement of schooling depends on increasing autonomy and professionalism (in the larger sense developed in Chapter Nine) of teachers. Schools and school districts interested in this approach have adopted practices such as school-based management, teaching portfolios, teacher-led action research, stronger teacher networks and increased collaboration both within and among schools, less hierarchical forms of school organization, and so on.

Another strong reform movement has been centred on helping schools cope with the increased diversity among students and families. Such ideas as inclusive education, multicultural education, and antiracist education, as well as the move to strengthen ties between schools and families, are expressions of the belief that schools can take steps to meet the needs of a wider range of students.

Others believe that schools should emulate private-sector practices such as quality improvement plans, pay for performance, and increased competition, as discussed in earlier chapters. Still other examples could be cited, including advocacy for much greater emphasis on technology, a stronger emphasis on preparation for work, a movement to integrate schooling and social services), or a belief that schools must be organized around more homogeneous religious, cultural, or ethnic communities on the basis of parental choice.

The kinds of reforms implemented by Canadian provincial governments in the last decade, have not really exemplified common patterns (Levin & Read, 2014). Some provinces tightened curriculum requirements by, for example, increasing the emphasis given in elementary schools to reading, mathematics, and science, or increasing the graduation requirements in secondary schools. Some provinces have further expanded provincial testing of students. Most provinces now have a program that tests all students at several grade levels. These testing programs are controversial, as noted in Chapter Seven; particularly contentious is the extent to which the results of testing are made public. Some see publication of school-by-school test results as giving parents more information to judge the quality of schools while others worry that these results will be misleading and will penalize schools that are working in high-poverty communities. 

One general movement, though mostly completed prior to 2005, has been to reduce the numbers and powers of school districts. All provinces have reduced significantly the number of districts, apparently as a cost-saving measure. At the same time, provincial governments have been legislating greater powers for ministers and departments of education. For example, recent legislation in Ontario gives the Minister of Education the authority to intervene in districts that are failing to focus effectively on better student outcomes.

Provincial governments in Canada have been ambivalent about the role of parents. On the one hand, steps were taken years ago in most provinces to give parents a greater role in schooling. Most provinces legislated some form of parent participation in local school councils, and several provinces now allow parents to choose the school their children will attend, even across district boundaries. Alberta made headlines in 1994 when it experimented with charter schools, which allow a group of parents or teachers to create their own school with a particular focus or emphasis that would then be directly funded by government and exempted from many of the regulations governing other schools.  These steps seem to imply a belief that parents should take over some of the responsibilities that have in recent years been held by professionals in schools. Other provincial moves, however, have tended to be in the opposite direction. As noted in Chapter Two, the legislation creating parents’ councils almost always makes these bodies advisory only, without any real authority. No other provinces have authorized the creation of charter schools, and their in Alberta remain small. And the increased authority being given to education ministers and provincial departments, coupled with more prescriptive curriculum and testing, seems to be in contradiction with a desire to empower parents and local schools.

In the last few years some provinces have shifted back towards a more collaborative approach to education policy, involving more attention to supporting schools and teachers in learning and implementing different practices.  Examples include an emphasis on having each school plan for improvement, or having strong professional development linked to key teaching skills.

There have been many policy changes in education in Canada in recent years, but it is hard to see clear and consistent patterns across the country.


Canada in Comparison with Other Countries

Although many educators feel that Canadian schools have been subject to a great deal of imposed change in recent years, in comparison with other countries the pace of change in Canada generally appears moderate. For example, the British government has made several series of major changes in education in England and Wales, including giving much more power to school governing bodies (which include parents and community representatives), instituting a national curriculum and testing program, publishing the academic results of individual schools, having compulsory external inspections of every school every few years, and giving parents the right to send their children to any school in the country (subject to the school’s ability and willingness to accept them). New Zealand abolished its school districts and most of its national Department of Education more than twenty years ago and required each school, through a representative governing body, to draw up a school charter specifying goals and strategies. It has also implemented a program of parent choice of schools. Across the United States schools have been subjected to much more competition through charter schools and choice, to much more testing of students with strong sanctions for poor results, and to increased evaluation of teachers, sometimes based on students’ test results. These reforms have embodied some of the same themes—more assessment, more parent control—and some of the same contradictions—between decentralization of some decisions from school boards to schools and greater centralization in other areas by governments—as are found in Canada. Other countries, however, such as Finland, Singapore or China, have adopted quite different strategies, focusing on enhancing the professional status and training of teachers, and looking much more at improving education through altering instructional practices as well as relations among schools, parents, and communities.

Several reasons can be suggested for Canada’s relatively modest approach to change. Because of provincial control over education and the lack of a strong national presence, reforms occur province by province, and provinces tend not to want to be too different from one another in their basic approach to education. Canada also lacks a well-developed national infrastructure for spreading ideas about education, so that people in one province tend not to learn much from the experience of other provinces. Canadian preoccupation with constitutional, linguistic, and religious issues in education has sometimes diverted attention from other aspects of education policy. Another factor is the decentralized Canadian system in which school districts largely control implementation of provincial policy, and stakeholder groups such as teachers and school board associations have tended to be quite powerful. Perhaps most importantly, public-opinion data show that Canadians continue to be reasonably content with their schools and less inclined than people in some other countries to believe that social problems are amenable to ready solution simply through the adoption of new policies.



Like most institutions, schools are better at maintaining the status quo than they are at making major changes. The tendency of any institution is to focus inwardly on its own operations, and to try to manage the outside world in a way that causes as little disruption as possible to business as usual. Although schools have been subject to all the criticisms and reform proposals already mentioned, many observers suggest that the major elements of schools have hardly changed at all. There are still groups of students who are organized by age and ability under the supervision of a teacher, who study a formal curriculum, and who are evaluated at the end of the year. In this sense, all the talk of reform seems to have made little difference.

There are several reasons why this is so. The first is that many reform proposals may be mandated without enough thought given to whether they will work in practice (Fullan, 2009). When these ideas collide with the everyday reality of classrooms and teacher–student/school–parent relationships, they turn out to be unworkable or not worth the trouble. Thirty years ago, schools experimented with what were called open-area schools, buildings in which most of the walls were removed, and students and teachers were asked to function in large groups. After a few years, the walls were reinstalled in most of these buildings. This was not because open area failed as a concept; the evidence suggests that open-area schools were about as successful as other schools (Walberg, 1990). Rather, open area embodied a particular view of learning that required major changes in teaching practice, and in teacher–teacher and teacher–student relationships. These changes needed a very large amount of time and energy to be implemented effectively. Moreover, the new settings made many parents uncomfortable. In the end, too many people felt that the change wasn’t worth the trouble.  Some see the same pattern happening today with the use of technology in schools.

A second problem with changing schools is that people do not agree on what schools are for. Any particular change presupposes a certain view of the purpose and role of schools. Those who see schooling as being primarily about developing individuality may favour reforms that broaden students’ choice, give more emphasis to issues of daily living, and so on. Those who regard schools as training grounds for the job market may want tighter discipline and more emphasis on mathematics, science, and work skills. Those who see schools as professional organizations may propose giving more authority to teachers, while those who value standardization and control may want provincial examinations instead. Since the formulation of school policy is largely a political matter, at any given time several of these agendas are likely to clash. Thus, schools are often asked to do things that are mutually incompatible. It is difficult for any organization to move decisively in two directions at the same time. No one should be surprised, then, to find that many changes in schools do not take root.

Finally, it is important to recognize that there are many things that we simply don’t know how to do. If there were a straightforward way to teach every 6-year-old to read, schools would use it; but there isn’t, at least as far as we know. Reading experts disagree about how reading should best be taught. What, then, are schools to do? The same is true of many of the other problems that face schools. There is no clear way to teach effectively in a classroom with 25 very different students; to provide challenging instruction for students who have different interests, motives, and needs; or to overcome the impact of poverty and violence that many children bring with them to school every day.

The American humorist H.L. Mencken once said that “to every complex problem there is a simple, straightforward solution—and it’s wrong.” It would be comforting to think that the problems of schools could be solved simply through some change in school policy or teaching practice, but the world is not like that. We may hear a proposal about an educational reform, find it appealing, and think that it would really work. But in practice it turns out that the problems are multiple, complex, and interrelated, and that the solutions are more difficult to implement and less effective than they seemed when first described.


Changing Thinking about Improving Schools

Thinking about school change and improvement has itself changed considerably over the last 50 years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, educators were startled by a series of studies that appeared to show that the inputs to schooling—numbers and qualifications of teachers, amount of money spent, class size, number of library books—were related only very weakly, if at all, to measurable school outcomes. Students’ backgrounds, and especially the social and economic status of their families, seemed far more powerful than anything schools were able to do.

The reaction to this depressing view took the form of the effective schools movement. Researchers studied schools that seemed to produce better than expected results given the kinds of students enrolled. The intent was to examine variables that educators could influence rather than assuming that results were determined by the characteristics of students. A number of studies in the United States and England concluded that more effective schools did have certain definite characteristics, such as clear instructional goals, high expectations for what students could learn, a supportive climate, high levels of parental involvement, and strong leadership. Although the effective schools literature had its critics, it did help restore some faith among educators that schools could make a difference.

Over the last twenty years, the research on school improvement has moved in several important directions. One body of work has continued to use large data sets to explore the factors that seem correlated with better student outcomes. A number of major studies have shown how complex the factors shaping school outcomes actually are. 

A second strand of work has focused on school improvement—on looking at the processes through which schools work to improve students’ outcomes. This research has drawn attention to a number of factors, such as high-quality professional development for teachers, creating time and opportunity for teachers to try out new strategies, using research and data to learn about what works and what does not, and generally building a climate in schools that is supportive of change and of learning. The research on school improvement has also shown that the process of improvement takes time, may vary from school to school, and requires ongoing attention and support.

Emerging from the school improvement literature have been a number of large-scale projects that look at creating and sustaining school improvement in a large number of schools over a period of several years. The results of these studies and projects are sobering and heartening at the same time. They are sobering in that it is clear that there is no simple recipe for school improvement, and that change takes energy, commitment, and resources sustained over years. Because many partners, including students and parents as well as teachers, must be involved for change to be effective and lasting, the process of change is daunting. At the same time, the research gives ground for optimism that students’ learning can indeed be improved, and that even in highly impoverished areas schools can help more students succeed.



Some readers might find the analysis of schooling in this chapter depressing. Schools face important challenges in the form of social change, yet our experience indicates that creating meaningful and lasting improvement is quite difficult to do. To say that things are difficult and that we are not sure what to do, however, does not mean we should do nothing. In this final section of the book we suggest some strategies that educators and those interested in education might use to create a climate for the thoughtful improvement of schools. Because educators need to explain themselves, not just assert their opinions, they themselves need to put more care into their thinking—they need a clearly articulated world view, better arguments, more evidence, and, most importantly, the disposition to change when they encounter persuasive evidence that is contrary to current thought or practice. And because of the growing pluralization of views, it is less likely that a single conception of education could be effective, let alone be imposed on everyone. While unsettling, the situation does suggest greater need and provides increased scope for the educational imagination. Indeed, one way of framing the challenge is to say that schools should change from organizations that are about learning to ones that embody the ideas of learning in their own structure and operation.

Responding to change is an educational task in which educators and schools need to do the same things we say we want to do with students—define and debate issues, analyze data, develop and test strategies, and learn from our experience. True, there is no formal curriculum for doing this, and no set of correct answers to be found in the back of the book. We will have to discover answers as we proceed, and to discard what does not seem to serve our purposes. But surely this is what real learning is about, and we should be excited by the opportunity to organize schooling in a manner that actually embodies the values we profess as educators. The absence of a single view of desirable change can be seen as an advantage that allows more options and possibilities. We need not wait to know the right way before we begin a journey.

What does this mean in specific terms? The four elements mentioned in the previous paragraph provide a set of possibilities:

Defining issues suggests that educators and their communities—parents, students, and the public generally—need more opportunities to talk about educational matters. Schools tend to shy away from conflict about ideas, yet different points of view provide the opportunity for everyone to learn. It is important to understand how students and parents think about schools and what their values, hopes, and aspirations are, and to compare those with the goals of staff. Disagreements and uncertainties can be explored so that everyone can understand one another’s concerns. 

It is also important to be able to talk more openly about issues we do not understand or do not know how to address. Educators, like other professionals, often feel that it is important to maintain an air of knowledge and certainty at all times. But this attitude may preclude the kind of open dialogue that today seems more important than ever. What does it mean to have truly public schools in the current era? How can we provide education that values both diversity and equity? We can only improve our ability to address these questions by debating them openly and accepting that our current knowledge and practices can benefit from thoughtful and sympathetic scrutiny. It is especially important to include in discussion those who may tend not to participate, or who may feel least able to contribute. The problems and challenges facing schools are different today; there is nothing wrong with admitting that we do not know how to address some of them. Admitting what we don’t know is a critical step toward learning.

Analyzing data provides a way of testing our beliefs and assumptions. Much of the debate about education has proceeded in the absence of good evidence. Yet real learning must involve careful consideration of what is known. Schools can benefit from gathering and analyzing more information about their social context: Who are our students and their families? What is the social and economic structure of the community? What kinds of work do people do? What do they see as critical problems and important opportunities? In many of these areas, data already exist through sources such as Statistics Canada; in others, schools can gather data fairly readily through surveys of students and families (which might even be done by high-school students as assignments). These data provide additional opportunities to talk about important issues in the school and the community and they provide a means of getting beyond people’s initial positions, or even prejudices.

Schools could also benefit from looking more carefully at data on their own outcomes. What proportion of students and what kinds of students are struggling? How many students are failing courses, and which ones? How are the achievement patterns different between males and females, or for particular minority groups? Are the patterns the same across the school, or do they differ from grade to grade and subject to subject? How might we explain these patterns and what implications might they have for the way we organize teaching and learning?

In Chapter One we suggested that schools all across Canada (and in many other countries) tend to operate in very similar ways. Given that we do not fully understand the changes taking place around us, or their impact on us, experimentation seems an essential strategy, and this would seem to imply more diversity in the arrangements for schooling. It is vital to develop and test strategies for improved schooling. Learning occurs when people try a variety of different things to see how they work. Yet policies of conscious and deliberate experimentation organized to promote learning about education are rare. Much more frequent is the belief that a solution has been found and that the only need is to make everyone conform to it. The imposition of dogma—no matter whose dogma it is—inevitably leads away from learning, not toward it.

At the same time, experimentation is not very useful unless we learn from our experience. Schools have been, as noted earlier in this chapter, subject to many experiments. We have not, however, typically seen these as opportunities to learn. Instead, each new strategy has been treated as the answer—something to be done, not something to be learned from (Levin, 2012). Consistent and systematic use of research as a strategy for learning about what works in education is quite rare. The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) concludes that education research is a very small enterprise, especially considering who large the education sector is.  Countries simply do not make sustained efforts to improve their education systems through research as they do, for example, in health care.

Research is not only a matter for governments, however. Every teacher and every school can ask questions and collect data about the effects of different policies and practices. Limits of time mean that not everything a teacher or school does can be studied carefully, but schooling might very well benefit from a greater propensity to ask whether what we are doing is working and whether something else might work even better. A growing literature on what is called “action research,” conducted by teachers in their own classrooms and schools, gives guidance on how such work can be done and can be useful.

All of these steps would move schools in the direction of embodying principles of learning in their own operations.



The task of maintaining a high-quality school system in a diverse, pluralistic, changing society is far from simple! Change affects schools in important ways that we may not understand very well. People have quite different views about how schools should be organized and operated. Governments are pushing change in particular directions without necessarily having a good understanding of what the results will be. Many teachers are feeling overwhelmed by all the changes that seem to be pressing on them, yet making lasting improvements in a well-established organization can be very difficult even when people agree on what the changes should be. All of this creates some dangers, for when people allow themselves to become preoccupied with unwanted changes, they lose the connection between themselves and the external world. People who are afraid of change also anticipate more and more threatening upheavals, condemning it in advance and, in a curious way, preparing themselves for the worst.

Seen from another perspective, however, this is a particularly exciting time to be involved in education. Teaching must be an optimistic endeavour. The whole idea of education rests on the possibility of betterment—on our belief that we can help the next generation create a better world. People expect our schools to help all students do well.  Could we ask for a more important and more exciting challenge? When people are questioning things, when long-established practices are open to scrutiny, when there is an acceptance that at least some things will need to be done differently, then there are also great opportunities for people with ideals and initiative. We have the opportunity to put our values into action in the service of education. Teachers, parents, and all those interested in schools can focus on the positive potential—the ability of people when motivated and supported to find ways of being in the world that are more conducive to creating and sustaining the kind of schools, and the kind of society, that most of us want.



1.         As a class exercise, brainstorm a list of all the forces outside the schools that are having an impact on what schools do. Organize your list in order of descending importance, and give reasons for your ranking.

2.         Find a recent media piece that is critical of schools or proposes changes in schools. What assumptions underlie the article? How well supported are the proposals by evidence or argument? What alternatives might exist for dealing with the same issue?

3.         Review a few issues of a popular journal from the early 1970s (e.g., Educational Leadership or Phi Delta Kappan). What were the key issues at that time? Are they still current? If not, why not?

4.         Interview an experienced teacher about the changes in policy and practice he or she has seen over the years. Which changes have had a lasting impact, and why? Which have disappeared with little trace, and why?

5.         Interview a teacher or principal in a school that has a high proportion of recent immigrants or low-income families. What issues does the school have to consider as a result of these demographic factors? What steps do schools take to try to cope with these problems?

6.         Obtain labour market data for your city or province. What occupations are most common, and how does this compare with Canada as a whole? What are the implications of these data for schools in your area?

7.         Interview one or two teachers about the use of technology in schools. What do they see as the potential of these technologies education? What do they see as their limitations? Do you agree? Why or why not?

8.         Talk with members of a school staff or parents to learn what mechanisms their school uses to raise and debate educational issues in the school and with the community. Is there an active process of studying and learning about emerging issues and problems? Why or why not?

9.         Investigate the role that education research plays in affecting school policy and practice. Which policies and practices have strong research support and which do not? What could be done to improve the connection between research and practice?