Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

March 26, 2014 4:50 PM




























































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































CHAPTER THREE: Policy and Politics



Linda Chartrand was already quite concerned when the meeting began, and what followed did not make her feel any better. There were 10 of them, meeting in the large and rather formal committee room in the school board office. Nobody was feeling very cheerful.

Superintendent Ron Brandt began by reviewing the situation. “As you know, a number of parents in this school district have objected to the use of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence in our high-school English literature program. They have appeared as a delegation before the school board asking—no, I’d better say demanding—that we remove the book from our program because they claim it is both obscene and blasphemous. While I’m sure none of us here shares that view, we do have to take their opinion seriously. They have certainly indicated that they won’t accept no for an answer; if we don’t respond, they’ll continue to fight the issue, perhaps running candidates in the school board elections next fall.

“We’ve gathered here the chair of the school board, myself, the two high-school principals, the English department heads, and teachers from the district’s language arts curriculum committee to decide what to do. I’d appreciate your comments. Mr. Pershanti, as chair of the board, would you like to begin?”

“Thank you, Ron,” said Arvin Pershanti. “The board finds itself in a very awkward situation here. We believe that The Stone Angel is a perfectly legitimate book to teach in high school. It’s approved by the provincial Department of Education. It was selected by our teacher curriculum committee. We’ve been teaching it for several years with no problems. But now we definitely have a problem.

“The trustees are wondering if we might consider temporarily taking the book off the program, at least for a year or two, until the fuss dies down.”

Seta Bolissian, one of the teachers present, burst out, “How can you say that? Are we going to knuckle under to a small group of cranks? What about our academic freedom as teachers? What about what’s best for our students? What about the vast majority of parents who are quite happy with the curriculum? Surely there are some principles at stake here.”

“Well,” said Lou Bryan, one of the principals, “points of principle are all very well, but we also have a practical problem. This may be a small group of people, but they can sure cause a big set of problems for us. We’ve got a good atmosphere of calm and cooperation in this district. If we let this issue get out of hand, all of that could turn into conflict, distrust, and mutual recrimination. I ask myself if one novel, however good it might be, is worth all of that. And I come to the conclusion that the board’s strategy is a good one. They’re not asking us to give up our principles, only to exercise some discretion for a little while. It seems like a good solution to me.”

Linda reflected that this was hardly surprising. Lou Bryan, who had been her principal a few years ago, was well known in the district for agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever the board or the superintendent did.

Now Larry Tucci, the other principal, was speaking. “Can’t we make this the province’s issue somehow? After all, The Stone Angel is on their list of approved books. Couldn’t we dump the issue into the lap of the minister of education?”
“I’ve thought of that,” said Ron Brandt. “I spoke with the provincial director of curriculum earlier today. He said that he thought the minister, if the question came to her, would dodge it. After all, we aren’t required to use that book; it’s just one on the list from which we select. And the minister would likely point out that decisions about specific books, and about community standards, belong to local school boards. She might even say that she would never want to interfere with the autonomy of the board in making these choices. I don’t think that strategy will work, I’m sorry to say.”

“We can’t just think about this instance, either.” Department Head of English Joan Gold now had the floor. “After all, if we give in this time we will be encouraging other groups to make similar demands. We need to think of a way to deal with these sorts of issues so as to try to reach some compromise that everyone can live with. I believe that decisions about curricular materials should be made by teachers—that is our professional right and responsibility. But we do need a process in which people who are unhappy can raise their concerns and have them heard without it turning into a game of political hardball.”

“Joan is right,” Linda broke in. “Let’s remember that 20 or 30 years ago our schools were full of books that portrayed Aboriginal people as savages and women as housewives exclusively. People who complained about those things were probably thought about just the same way we’re talking about this group—as crackpots or extremists. I don’t want The Stone Angel removed from the curriculum, and certainly not because someone demands it and issues threats. But we do need to make a serious effort to hear what their concerns are, and to try to respond to them in some way. I can’t believe that we couldn’t reach an acceptable compromise if we tried to debate the matter with some understanding.”

“I like what you’re saying,” said Ed Safniuk, another teacher. “There are many kids in my class from cultures that have quite different values, and many of their parents have problems with books like this. I think we need to broaden the issue to ask what literature best serves our students’ needs. That is something we can discuss with parents and students, rather than making this a power struggle.”

“You’re naïve, Linda, and you too, Ed,” said Larry Tucci. “These people don’t want a serious dialogue. They’re determined to have their way, no matter what. I’d like to see the board tell them to drop dead, but I can understand why the trustees may not want to do so, and I’m prepared to live with the solution Mr. Pershanti put forward.”

The politics of education have been changing dramatically in recent years. Governments have been increasingly active in developing and legislating major changes in many aspects of schooling, including governance, testing, curriculum, and teacher training (Portelli & Solomon, 2001; Levin, 2001a). Parents are more involved and vigorous in expressing their views than ever before. A wide variety of external groups is also actively involved in political issues around education (Taylor, 2001). Education is often a subject of political debate and extensive media coverage. Expectations for schools are increasing and diversifying, with the result that everyone in the school system—teachers, principals, school boards, and provincial governments—is under more political pressure.

Understanding the dynamics of education politics is fundamental to understanding the nature of public education in Canada. This chapter focuses on the following questions of policy and politics in education:
1.   What is policy, and why are policy questions important in education?
2.   How do political processes operate to establish policies?
3.   What are some of the dilemmas or tensions inherent in the politics of Canadian education?
4.   What are some of the central questions that can be used to analyze and understand political and policy debates?
5.   How do these questions help us to understand the politics of education at the provincial, school board, and school levels?

The everyday world of teaching and learning in schools is greatly affected by a wide range of policies. The term policy is usually defined as a general guideline that shapes decisions or actions. Some people think of policies as rules, but for purposes of this chapter policy is defined as a general approach to things, intended to guide behaviour (although, as we will see later, policies have other purposes as well). A policy decision in education, then, is one that has broad implications within a particular setting, whether a country, province, or school.

Policies shape the structure of schools, the resources available in schools, the curriculum, the teaching staff, and, to a considerable extent, the round of daily activities. Policies determine how much money is spent, by whom and on what, how teachers are paid, how students are evaluated, and most other aspects of schools as we know them. The impact of policies can be illustrated by listing just a few areas of education policy. Some important policy areas such as school consolidation, language policy, and Aboriginal education have been discussed in earlier chapters.

What is taught is affected by provincial curriculum policies, school board curriculum policies, and school curriculum policies, all of which determine what is on the curriculum, how much of the content is prescribed, what textbooks can be used, and how much flexibility teachers have to alter curricula. For instance, how much time and attention will be given to art and music as opposed to language? How much attention will be given to labour history or women’s history in social studies? How much will be taught about the environment?

Who can teach is determined by policies on teacher training and certification, and on teacher evaluation. Will people with particular skills (e.g., languages) but without teacher training be allowed to teach? Will teachers require specialist qualifications for certain positions? Will teaching credentials from other provinces and countries be recognized?

How students are treated is affected by school and district policies on discipline, attendance, student activities, student evaluation practices, grading, failure, and so on. Given recent legal decisions regarding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to what extent will students be given the same protections that apply to other citizens?

How teaching occurs is affected by policies on timetabling, teacher workloads, class sizes, assignment of students to classes, availability of supplementary materials and equipment, access to field trips, and so on. How easy is it for teachers to undertake innovative teaching activities? Is cooperative learning to be supported? Are field trips seen as an important part of the program?

How schools operate is affected by policies that deal with the provision of spaces for classrooms, libraries, gymnasia, laboratories, music rooms, and other areas. Will all elementary schools have libraries? Where will vocational facilities be placed? Will older inner-city schools have the same facilities as new suburban schools?

Where teaching occurs is affected by provincial policies on construction of new schools, and by district policies on how programs and resources are to be divided among schools. For example, will small schools remain open? Will high-school students be placed in different courses (“tracked”) by their achievement and ability? Will language programs be housed in specialized schools?

Important policy decisions, whether they occur in education or in other fields, are made through political processes. Although there are many definitions of the term politics, one of the most frequently cited is that politics determines “who gets what” (Laswell, 1950). In other words, politics is the process used by a society (or an organization within a society) to determine how to distribute power, wealth, opportunity, status, and other social goods. Education politics concerns the determination of what will be taught, where, by whom, how, to whom, and under what circumstances.
Politics also involves questions of choice, although opinions about what choices are to be made will often differ. This means that politics is centrally affected by questions of power. Since not everyone can have what they want, the question is, who does get what they want and who does not? Political philosopher Glenn Tinder describes a political system as “a set of arrangements by which some people dominate others” (1991, p. 162). In Canada the rhetoric is that everyone is equal, but political influence in our country is highly unequal, and those who have the least wealth and status tend also to have the least influence on political decision making.

Every education policy decision can be seen as being, in some sense, a political decision. However, this does not mean that every educational issue will be the subject of intense public discussion and political lobbying. Indeed, most policy decisions in education are made with little or no public attention. Ministries of education, school boards, schools, and teachers are constantly making policy decisions without public outcry or concern. Sometimes these decisions are controversial within the organization itself—the department of education, the school district, or the school—and sometimes not. But even if they are not controversial, education policy decisions, because they involve questions of public choice and concern, are essentially political in nature (Manzer, 1994).

Many people tend to think of politics as the formal process of elections, political parties, and the actions of governments—the things we see on the national news or read about in the newspaper. This is an important part of education politics. But as was pointed out in Chapter 2, each level of the system has particular responsibilities and can make policy decisions within these responsibilities. There is a great deal of political activity at the federal and provincial level, as well as in school districts, not only by the elected bodies themselves but also by all of those trying to influence the direction of policy. Some of the most basic policies are cast into provincial legislation, giving them legal force and making them difficult to change. For example, compulsory school attendance is a policy that has been made into law in all Canadian provinces. Additionally, provincial Cabinets and ministers of education may issue policy statements that are supported by varying degrees of legal force. The creation of provincial examinations would be an instance of such a policy, but there are many others. School boards may pass motions setting out various policies within their areas of jurisdiction, such as deciding which programs will be offered in which schools or, in most provinces, what forms of reporting to parents will be used.

Politics as defined in this book includes these activities, but also extends to the actions and attitudes of every member of society. Every time an individual or group tries either to change or maintain the existing order, politics is involved; this process is part of the fabric of democracy. A school principal or staff member makes policy decisions in areas such as student discipline, teaching methods, or student evaluation. Individual teachers make many decisions about the nature of their teaching, such as how students should behave, what sort of instruction will be provided, what kinds of assignments will be given, and how certain kinds of situations will be handled. All of these can be seen as policy decisions in that they shape the actions of people in schools, even though they may apply to only a few students, or may be made informally by individual teachers.

Feminist political theorists have shown that personal matters can also be seen as political (Acker, 1994; Blackmore & Kenway, 1993; Reynolds & Young, 1995). For example, a female teacher’s choice of whether or not to become a parent is affected by and affects public policies concerning maternity leave, working conditions, daycare, relative wage levels of men and women, and so on. Politics, broadly conceived, may be defined as the way each of us, whether individually or working with others, tries to make the kind of school, community, or society that we want to have. Thus, political processes occur continuously in groups and organizations at all levels. The actions of a group of parents in urging a new program in their school, or of a group of students protesting changes in discipline policies, or of a First Nation taking over the administration of its own schools are all political actions in the realm of education.

Several ongoing tensions or dilemmas characterize Canadian education politics.

Centralization versus decentralization has to do with where authority over educational decisions will be located. Will it be at the local level—the school or school district—or will provincial governments or even the federal government take on a greater degree of control? This general issue shows up in a great number of decisions about schools. Should curricula be set locally or provincially? Should students be evaluated within the school or through provincial examinations? Should schools be able to hire whomever they want as teachers, or must all teachers meet certain provincial requirements?

Professional authority versus lay authority deals with the amount of control over schooling exercised by teachers and administrators as opposed to parents and community members. Examples of this tension include debates over the degree of freedom teachers should have to control their own subject matter and teaching style, over whether hiring decisions should be made by school boards or by superintendents and principals, over whether parents should have a role in evaluating school programs, and so on.

The tensions between uniformity and diversity concern whether the school system will be standard in its operation across communities, regions, and even provinces, or whether schools will vary across settings because the Canadian population is so diverse. Historically, language and religion have been particularly prominent aspects of the struggle over diversity. Some of the most vociferous debates in Canadian education continue to revolve around the issue of how and to what degree we are prepared to accommodate different linguistic and religious views. The varying arrangements across Canada in regard to minority religions and languages show how differently these questions have been answered depending on circumstances. And now Canadians face new issues concerning diversity. Do we provide separate Aboriginal schools in our cities? Do we teach non-English-speaking primary students in their mother tongue? Do we produce textbooks and teaching materials in languages such as Italian, Hindi, and Chinese as well as French, English, Inuktitut, and Cree? What does it mean to provide equal opportunities in schools for girls and women in areas such as science and technology? How do we safeguard the rights of minorities while seeking to maintain a common education?

The above tensions run through many aspects of educational policymaking and politics, as will be illustrated in the remainder of this chapter.

Within the broad sphere of political activity in education, there are many differences in how particular issues are handled. Some are the subject of legislation, others of informal bargaining. Some are written down for all to see, while others are dealt with through implicit bargains. Some issues come to a clear resolution, others linger on indefinitely. In all cases, we can achieve a better understanding of any particular political issue by considering the following five general aspects:

1.   What is the issue and how is it being defined? (Issues)
2.   Who is involved in making the decision? (Actors)
3.   Through what decision-making process will a decision be made? (Processes)
4.   What factors might influence the decision? (Influences)
5.   What are the outcomes of a political process? (Results)

Although we will consider each of these aspects separately, it is important to realize that all five operate simultaneously and are intimately connected with one another.

Because politics centres on conflict, a policy or political issue will be seen differently by different people. Political debate has as much to do with determining what the exact question is as it does with providing an answer. Consider the decision by a provincial government to introduce provincial testing. This decision might be seen by various groups of people as: (1) an issue of maintaining standards of achievement; (2) a way of controlling teachers; (3) an unwelcome distraction from attempts to meet the varying needs of students; or (4) a waste of money or a public-relations ploy.

A school board’s decision to recruit more female administrators could be seen by some as a long-overdue attempt to redress biases in our hiring practices, and by others as an inappropriate challenge to the merit principle in hiring. Offering heritage language courses might be seen by some as building the multicultural ideal in Canada, and by others as detracting from Canadian unity. A decision in a high school to “get tough on absenteeism” could be regarded as a way of improving standards, or as a way of pushing difficult students into leaving the school.

Understandings of policy issues also are not fixed. Our sense of any given issue is likely to change over time as events unfold and as we learn more about a particular matter. Sometimes these shifts take place over a relatively short time. A school board wishing to close a school may begin by seeing the issue as one of saving money. By listening to others and thinking about it themselves, they may come to see that the issue for parents is one of preserving a community and of maintaining a certain quality of education. Keeping a school open may be seen as a matter of equity by some. The board might then shift its own definition of the issue away from financial matters to a broader concern with educational questions. Sometimes the shifts are much slower, as we saw in the slow but dramatic shift of ideas and policies toward support for integrating physically disabled students into the schools. Indeed, when we examine the historical record and see how sure people were about the rightness of policies we now see as completely misguided, we should be less sanguine about our current practices and keep in mind that years from now these too may well be seen as erroneous and unproductive. At the same time, we do not have the benefit of hindsight, and at any given moment people must act on the best information and judgment available, no matter how imperfect it might be.

The Struggle to Define Issues
Politics necessarily involves disagreement and debate. Many people are uncomfortable about conflict, especially when it involves education and our strongly held belief that we should “do what is best for the children.” But there is disagreement about what is best for the children. When important public issues such as education are at stake, there are likely to be strong differences of opinion about what should be done, especially in a country as heterogeneous as Canada. Indeed, if there were no differences of opinion, there would be no issue in the first place. The danger is that when opinions vary, those who have the power will simply impose their will. Democratic practice requires something more than this, since it is based on the idea of consent of the governed. The ideal is to have political decisions made through a process of open and fair public debate. However, this is much easier said than done.

In many cases, people have neither the time nor the interest to develop an in-depth understanding of a given policy issue. There are simply too many issues to consider for one to become an expert, even if one really wanted to. To understand most issues, the majority of people rely on information that comes to them through their own experience, through their contacts with other people, and, in the case of larger-scale issues, through the media (Nadeau & Giasson, 2003). An important question about any policy issue, then, is who is framing the agenda and shaping the way in which people think about the issue. During any political debate, the various parties are making efforts to change how people think about the issues in order to build support for their particular point of view. Political debate is largely an attempt to persuade people to see issues in a particular way (Levin & Young, 2000).

Evidence and Argument
Two important vehicles for persuading people are evidence and argument. Although the two are distinct, they are also very much intertwined. Political decisions cannot simply be determined through an appeal to facts, but neither should they be reduced to questions of who has how much power; rather, a combination of evidence, argument, reason, and persuasion are all essential to the political process.

In part, policy decisions about education are matters of evidence. We seek to know which course of action is most likely to allow us to attain our objectives. Research may play an important role in shaping policy because it provides evidence about the results of various policies. Our experiences also provide evidence and shape our thinking about what policies are most desirable. For example, there is generally less use of punishment, and particularly physical punishment, in schools than there used to be. This is partly because both research and the experience of teachers indicated that punishment was not very effective in fostering appropriate behaviour by students. Instead, studies showed that positive reinforcement was often a much more successful technique of behaviour management. As teachers began to see that their experience corroborated the research, their behaviour gradually changed.

Research has had a checkered influence on education, in Canada and elsewhere. In general education, policies and practices appear to rest more on history and intuition than on a foundation of empirical research (Levin, 2004). Many educators have seen research as largely irrelevant to their everyday work. Researchers have not always put enough emphasis on communicating their work to those who might use it, preferring to write mainly for academic colleagues. The entire education research enterprise in Canada has been very small. Neither level of government has put very much money into education research, especially compared with the research effort in related fields such as health or training.

However, this situation is starting to change. The knowledge base about effective educational policy and practice is growing (Levin, 2001b). In areas such as early reading, special education, parent involvement, and others, there is a growing body of knowledge about effective practice (Fullan, 2001). Provincial policy documents are increasingly (though certainly not always) linked with research findings. Teachers and school administrators are increasingly well informed about research and increasingly interested both in learning more about research and in conducting their own research in their own schools and classrooms. Governments have also become more interested in both supporting and using education research as the whole idea of evidence-based decision making grows in importance (Davis, 1999). The growing attention to the importance of early childhood development is a good example of a field in which research has driven substantial changes in policy.

But evidence is not necessarily a neutral matter that concerns the discovery of some objective truth. Personal predispositions may also shape what we see and accept as being relevant evidence. Normally, the parties to a political debate will try to produce various kinds of evidence supporting their views (Davies, 1999) (see Box 3.1). A minister who favours provincial examinations might provide data showing that achievement levels in universities are not increasing, or data from opinion polls showing that many people favour such exams. Teachers opposing the policy would then bring forward evidence showing that greater emphasis on testing changes instruction by obliging it to focus more on the narrow set of issues to be tested.

Evidence both shapes and is shaped by our ideas and opinions. Many policy issues go beyond what can be decided by the research findings or the lessons of experience. This is because policy matters usually involve questions of values. They cannot normally be determined through evidence alone, although evidence can play an important role. There are matters about which there may well be disagreement and debate. To return to the example about physical punishment, over the last few decades there has been an increasing conviction that hitting children is not an acceptable practice. While this shift in attitude may have been influenced by research, it also goes beyond the findings of research to reflect changing social values regarding the treatment of children.

BOX 3.1 People for Education and the Tracking Project

The organization People for Education (PfE) was started in Ontario in 1996 by a group of parents who were concerned about how much fundraising they were being asked to do as a result of reductions in provincial funding to schools. They set out to gather solid evidence on the impact of budget reductions in Ontario schools. Working with a local nonprofit social agency, the parents developed a survey asking schools about budgets in key areas such as class size and special education. Although the first year produced only very limited survey data, the group received many stories from schools and wrote a report on the situation that received a great deal of media coverage.

Each year since 1996, People for Education expanded its survey, adding more questions and getting responses from more schools, so that about half of all schools in Ontario now respond each year. In the first few years only elementary schools were surveyed, but later a secondary school survey was created as well. Gradually these surveys became the best-known and most reliable source of information available on the budget situation in Ontario schools. For example, PfE was able to show increases in class size and declines in supports such as school librarians. Each year PfE releases two survey reports—one on elementary schools and one on secondary schools.

PfE has, like all organizations, used a mix of evidence and argument in its reports. It presents data and uses them to argue for particular conclusions. PfE reports include considerable statistical evidence but also quotes from survey responses that show impacts in particular situations. PfE reports also contain some assumptions—for example, that smaller classes or more specialized teachers will lead to better educational outcomes. The reports do not consider whether schools and districts are making the best choices in using their resources. Although fundraising by parents for schools did increase substantially after 1995, these funds remain a very small portion of overall school spending and so, while significant to families, are not a major determinant of school resources. However PfE is unusual among lobby groups in placing so much emphasis on credible quantitative evidence and in making a genuine attempt to look at the evidence fairly. In its most recent reports, for example, PfE acknowledges improvements on some of its indicators as a result of changes in policy by the current Ontario government.

Because they are produced by parents, the PfE reports have considerable credibility, are widely cited by the media, and are used by other organizations in the education sector. The leaders of People for Education are often quoted in news stories about education issues. The provincial government treats the organization and its work as important. This is a very impressive accomplishment for an organization and shows what can be accomplished by a group with a clear mission and a good sense of political process.

Source: People for Education website <www.peopleforeducation.com>. Reprinted by permission.

Argument, on the other hand, has to do with giving people reasons for believing something. Reasons may or may not rest on evidence. Arguments often rest on moral claims about what is worthwhile or important or right. For example, an argument about the importance of strengthening competitiveness in our schools is really an appeal to see the world in a particular way, and therefore to take certain kinds of actions. Given this overall view, it may be argued that rigorous monitoring of student attendance shapes the kinds of attitudes necessary to succeed in the work force. Argument, then, is more ideological in its origins, since it is based on a view of what constitutes a desirable world; but argument and evidence are closely linked in that beliefs affect our view of evidence, and evidence, in turn, may alter our beliefs.

People also use argument to clarify their own beliefs about an issue. We may learn more about what we really think as we try to advance arguments for our view that will convince others as well as ourselves. The requirement to convince others means that arguments cannot appeal only to selfish motivations, but must also be couched in terms of the public good (e.g., fairness or justice). Actions are not seen as legitimate unless they can be defended in these terms.

Emotion often plays an important role in policy debates, especially when an issue speaks to deeply held beliefs or interests, such as the welfare of our children. There may be angry meetings, protests, and even violence. Conflict can be frightening because it tests the bonds of our society and our willingness to live with one another. When carried too far, conflict can produce terrible results. But conflict can also play a creative role in society. If people feel they have a real say in the society in which they live, they may be more willing to accept that others must also have a say and that compromises must be made. Out of disputes about ideas can come better ideas. Out of disagreement can come constructive compromise. There can be no democracy without the willingness to tolerate political conflict. Indeed, Tinder (1991) suggests that “[t]olerance must extend far enough to be dangerous. Otherwise it is a mere formality, a courtesy I extend to those who think and act on the whole as I do, and not a policy that accepts important disagreements and differences” (p. 180).

In short, there is no one set of rules or rational procedures that can be applied to determine all political choices. These must simply be worked out through various political means. There are, however, criteria that can be applied to determine whether the process of political debate is fair. Judgments can be made both about the evidence being presented and the arguments being advanced. Is information about the issue widely available, or is it hidden from view? Does evidence come from reliable sources? Are all the available data being presented, rather than just those that support a particular point of view? Are divergent opinions all given a reasonable hearing, or do some parties control the debate? Do the various parties have a reasonable ability to make their views known? Is the debate cast in terms that invite reflection on the various positions, and dialogue among them, or is it cast in emotional terms that detract from thoughtful discussion? In applying these questions, we can make a decision as to whether we are promoting a political debate that meets the test of democratic values.

How an issue is defined is related to who is providing the definition. Because education is important to the well-being of our entire society, everyone has some stake in what our schools do and how they do it. This means that education policy is important not only to governments, students, and teachers but also to parents and society as a whole. The politics of Canadian education involves a large number of different actors. Some, like departments of education, play roles that are quite well defined, while others, such as parent groups or business lobbies, have more diffuse roles. These various groups are often referred to as stakeholders, meaning that they have a stake or interest in the enterprise of schooling.

Who Participates?
Let us begin with the formal players. In Chapter 2, we examined the basic structure underlying the provision of public education in Canada. All three levels of government—federal, provincial, and local—are involved in education. Each level has particular powers and responsibilities. However, there are often conflicts between the levels of government over particular issues, as we shall see shortly. Beyond governments, an enormous variety of groups play an active role in educational politics and policy. Some of these groups are involved more or less constantly, while others may be involved only in particular issues.

One set of groups represents the key participants in the educational system, often referred to as internal stakeholders. In each province, there are associations of teachers, school trustees, and school administrators (usually different associations for school principals and for school district superintendents). Sometimes there may be several distinct associations for these groups, as in Ontario, where the public, Catholic, and francophone school systems have distinct organizations of school boards, teachers and administrators. In most provinces these stakeholder groups have had a very influential role in setting education policies. Support staff secretaries, bus drivers, and maintenance and caretaking personnel are unionized in many parts of the country. Their unions may also play an active role, but in most provinces the associations of teachers, trustees, and administrators have been predominant.

For many years, ministries of education discussed important policy issues in advance with these latter groups before changes were implemented, leading to a highly consultative policy process (Manzer, 1994). In recent years, however, as education has attracted growing political attention, provincial governments have been more attentive to other stakeholders, especially parents and community groups. As a result, governments are more inclined to make important policy decisions with less advance consultation with internal stakeholders. Sometimes public consultation processes such as commissions or white papers have been used instead. Educational groups have been unhappy about their decreased influence, and the political process has become more conflictual.

The role of parent and community groups has also changed. Not long ago parents had a voice only when they organized themselves and demanded to be heard; school boards were seen to represent the public on most issues. However, in the last few years all provinces have institutionalized school committees that include parents, and sometimes non-parent community members. It is not clear if these bodies exercise very much influence (Menzies, 1996), but their creation does mark a recognition of the political role of these players.

In recent years, as political conflict over education policy has sharpened in many areas, a number of permanent groups have been formed to represent parents on key issues. For example, Canadian Parents for French, an organization committed to the strengthening of French immersion programs, has had a strong impact on this issue in many provinces. The Association for Children with Learning Disabilities is one among many groups that play an important role in the development of policy in special education, and is an important and powerful lobby group in many areas. As parents have become more vocal and better organized, the number and importance of such groups have increased sharply.

Rarely given an explicit role in education politics or policy are the students themselves. Since students are commonly cited by all the parties as the prime beneficiaries of schools, and the reason we have schools, it seems odd that they have typically had no formal role in making decisions about various aspects of schooling (Levin, 2000b). In Chapter 4, consideration is given to the legal status of student governments in schools. Considered from a political point of view, however, students have very little power. They lack organization, knowledge, wealth, and connections. As a result and despite the rhetoric, they can be and often are ignored when important decisions about their futures are being made. Where student involvement does exist, it is typically of a token nature, with little or no real influence on subsequent decisions.

There are many other groups whose main focus is not on the educational system, but who may have an interest in particular educational issues. Business organizations, labour unions, and various community groups are external stakeholders who may become involved in particular education policy issues. Business groups, such as the Conference Board of Canada, have been especially influential, and tend to stress the importance of schools’ developing good work habits such as punctuality, or skills such as entrepreneurship. Peace organizations may lobby for the inclusion of curriculum material on peace. Child welfare organizations may want the schools to place more stress on educating children about violence and its prevention. Taxpayer groups may organize to press school boards to spend less money and thus avoid increases in local property taxes. In the last few years, health groups have been advocating changes in schools that would improve students’ physical fitness as a response to rising levels of obesity. Because education affects everyone in the society, every organized group can potentially have an interest in educational issues. Although their importance varies, on the whole these lobby groups are much more influential than they used to be.

The media also play an important role in many debates about educational issues because they have such a powerful influence on how people see issues. The media are often criticized in education, as in other fields, for focusing primarily on the negative and giving precedence to stories that are critical. The coverage of education tends to be episodic, and issues are rarely given in-depth treatment. At the same time, most Canadian adults do not have children in the schools, and so may rely heavily on television and press reports as they form their opinions about education policy issues, just as people do for many other areas of public life. School systems are only beginning to think about how to adjust to the powerful role of mass media in shaping education politics.

Who Should Participate?
An ongoing question in politics is who should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process. In the case of the educational system, many people will have an interest in formulating policy decisions. For example, teachers and students are almost always affected directly by policy decisions, but so too may be parents, other school staff, and all sorts of individuals and organizations. Many people tend to think that everyone affected by a decision should have a right to participate in making the decision, but that view raises important questions. For one thing, what does it mean to participate in making a decision? Have we participated if we have expressed our point of view, even if it carried no weight in the decision? Is it participation to appear before a school board and to make a presentation that is ignored in the board’s decision making? Or have we participated only if we are satisfied with the outcome? One point of view, discussed in Chapter 2, is that we have all participated simply by electing a school board or provincial government. Once elected, a governing body may, but need not, consult us again about each particular decision. After all, being elected is what lends a governing body the authority and legitimacy to make decisions at all. But others would argue that democratic societies rely on consensus when deciding policies, and that consensus can be achieved only if everyone who so wishes can play an active role in the decision-making process, even though this may make the process slower and create additional conflict.

Participation has been seen as a positive value for different reasons. One argument has to do with effectiveness. Some believe that people will be more accepting of a decision, and more willing to abide by it, if they have had a chance to participate in making it. This view is often expressed in regard to various educational innovations, where the belief is that teachers are more likely to implement changes if they have had a say in shaping those changes. The effectiveness argument will be true in some cases, but not in others, depending on how important the issue is and how strongly people feel about it. The stronger people’s views are about an issue, the less likely it is that participation alone will build commitment to the decision. So, while teachers may be willing to agree to support an attendance policy because it has been arrived at through staff discussion, they would not likely agree to have their own jobs eliminated simply because that decision had been made after discussion by all.

The second main argument for participation is a moral one. People have a right to participate in important decisions affecting them, regardless of whether their participation makes the process more effective, or leads to a better decision, or results in consensus. This belief is the foundation of the idea of democratic government. In regard to schools, however, it is not clear who has this right to participate. Much of the literature stresses teachers’ participation in decisions. But what about students? After all, they are deeply affected by almost every educational policy, yet often have no voice at all. What about parents, who rarely play an active role in shaping school policies? And what about the community generally? If schools are important to everyone, then perhaps everyone should participate in formulating educational policy. But is such an idea at all practical? Moreover, not everyone wants to participate in every decision. Teachers, for instance, may be content to leave many decisions to school administrators, reserving their own time and energy for the decisions they feel are truly important. Many parents, while interested in supporting their own children’s school, do not want to be actively involved in governing the school.

How Does Participation Occur?
Much of our political process is oriented toward groups. Voting, of course, is done by individuals. And individuals can make a difference in the political process through their courage and leadership. But political decisions are made and influenced by groups of people and organized around particular interests, whether broad (a group wishing to improve the public image of education) or narrow (a group wanting a different principal in the local school). It is school boards or provincial Cabinets as collective bodies that struggle with budget and policy issues; it is groups of people who organize to lobby for or against particular policy proposals. Indeed, when people are motivated to act politically, they look for group support almost instinctively. The parent who is unhappy with the school and the teacher who feels aggrieved by an administrative decision will both look for support from others, whether neighbours, colleagues, a parents’ association, or the teachers’ organization.

Despite the development of more open political processes over the last 100 years, the ability to participate politically, like so much else in our society, is not distributed equally. People with more money and more connections will have more political influence. Well-financed groups can afford to hire skilled staff and mail out professional-looking newsletters, so will often be more influential than neighbourhood groups that rely on volunteers working in the evenings. Groups that understand the political process, have easy access to decision makers, and know the jargon may exercise influence disproportionate to their numbers. This influence extends to defining the issues, as discussed earlier, as well as to affecting a particular policy choice.

In the case of education, the policy process is often dominated by the established groups and stakeholder organizations. They are already organized, and tend to have staff and money. Their executives know and are used to dealing with one another. They are already present in many of the decision-making forums. This fact tends to push the policy process in particular directions. Each group normally acts to protect the welfare of its own members. If the key decisions are being made by people who are already part of the system and benefiting from it, there might well be less likelihood of significant change. Those most in need of the political process to advance their interests—children, poor people, recent immigrants—are often least able to mobilize themselves to take advantage of it. Aboriginal people have often been excluded from political participation. So were women: being denied the vote, being unable to own property in their own name, and being economically dependent on men made it very difficult for women to establish a voice in educational governance (see Box 3.2).

The lack of participation of some groups, however, does not necessarily occur through such overt processes. After all, every adult citizen in Canada is now entitled to participate in political processes. But some people are still excluded through factors such as process and language. For example, appearing before a school board requires some familiarity with what a school board is and does. It may require the ability to write a brief and present oneself as a fellow professional. It may require familiarity with current legislation and regulations. Being able to associate a particular grievance with an issue that is of genuine public concern is an important ability. These skills are far more likely to be found among people who are well educated and well connected to the political process.

Political processes can also be designed to be inhibiting. For example, many school boards will allow delegations to appear and ask questions, but will make no comments and will reserve their own discussion of the issue to a later, private portion of the meeting. The delegations thus appear as supplicants requesting a favour rather than as citizens expressing a point of view. A delegation may have no chance to learn what the board thinks of its views, and why. The same is largely true of briefs submitted to various provincial commissions. When a commission receives 1 000 or more submissions, how much impact will one more or one less have? How would one know?

BOX 3.2 Participation in Provincial Commissions

One of the vehicles governments use to help form public policy is to create a commission. This involves designating a person or small group to conduct an official inquiry into a topic and to issue a public report with recommendations. Commissions usually include extensive processes of public consultation so as to gather as broad a range of views as possible. A look at who participates in these processes is instructive in understanding how people do or do not participate in political events. While commissions are intended to provide a vehicle for broad public input, their consultation activities tend to be dominated by groups and organizations within the system directly affected. This results in much less “public” involvement.

In 1987, the Government of British Columbia set up a royal commission to provide recommendations on the basic direction the province’s education system should take. Chaired by lawyer Barry Sullivan, the commission held 66 public hearings and 54 meetings with teachers, and participated in 23 student assemblies. The report of the commission, issued in 1988, listed the 2 350 groups and individuals who had appeared at the hearings or submitted written briefs. An analysis of these lists shows that the great majority of the presenters were affiliated with schools—school boards, teachers’ groups, and parents’ groups. The commission also met with representatives of government agencies and major provincial organizations, including groups representing superintendents, principals and vice principals, secretary-treasurers, school trustees, teachers, independent schools, and university faculties of education.

Ontario created a Royal Commission on Learning in 1993 to look at the direction and future of the public school system. The Ontario commission conducted an even more extensive consultation process than the commission in B.C. It held more than 40 sets of public hearings, visited 36 schools, and received 1 400 oral presentations, 1 500 written briefs, 350 telephone call comments, and 1 500 e-mail comments. It also organized a series of outreach meetings in malls, detention centres, and social service agencies. Although the commission did generate widespread participation, a very large proportion of submissions and presentations were from educational organizations—school boards, administrators, teachers, and parent councils.

In 2001–02, Manitoba created a commission on class size and composition to prepare recommendations on provincial policy on this issue. The commission held public dialogues across the province involving some 400 people and received about 60 written submissions. However, here too the vast majority of participants and submissions came from groups within the education system, such as teachers, administrators, and school boards.
These commissions also commissioned research to support their work, largely from university professors.

It is no surprise to learn that even the most open consultative process will tend to be dominated by those with the strongest stake in the system, and also by those with the skills, time, and other resources to take advantage of opportunities for participation. Although all three commissions made considerable efforts to hear from all interested parties, some groups had much more input than others.


Sullivan, B. (1988). A legacy for learners: Report of the Royal Commission on Education. Vancouver: Province of British Columbia.

Ontario (1994). For the love of learning: Report of the Royal Commission on Learning. Toronto: Publications Ontario.

Manitoba (2002). Report of the Commission on Class Size and Composition. Winnipeg: Manitoba Education and Training.

Language is another effective barrier to participation. Education, like other fields, has developed its own terminology, its own jargon. Those unfamiliar with “word attack skills,” “powers of school boards under the Schools Act,” “most appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment,” and the many other specialized terms in education will find it harder to participate in discussions. Professionals may use jargon, whether consciously or not, as a way of showing their own skill and, effectively, diminishing the contribution of others.

At the same time, it is important to realize that even relatively uninfluential groups can, with the right resources and assistance, mobilize and have an impact on educational decisions. Accordingly, one test of a participative process is to ask how much weight the least powerful carry in the process. If their voices are not heard, we have reason to wonder if the process is as democratic as we might want. We might also want to consider what measures could be taken to make our political processes more open, and to enhance the participation of the least powerful.

For most political issues, there is no straightforward, pre-defined decision-making process. Politics is essentially related to questions of who has, and is willing to use, power. For any given issue, this is not known at the beginning. For one thing, power is itself an elusive matter. It is not something that can be stored or counted, but rather a function of relationships among people and organizations—which can change rapidly and unexpectedly. When a long-standing government, with a powerful state bureaucracy behind it, suddenly collapses in a matter of days (as has happened in a number of countries in recent years), it is clear that official power does not always bring real power.
The ability to exercise power depends on the particulars of an issue. Sometimes what seem to be relatively simple and straightforward decisions can become highly contentious. For example, a provincial government has the power to prescribe curricula for schools. Usually this occurs without any public furor. But in some cases, such as family life education or streaming in secondary schools, these decisions can become intensely political, and the official power of the province will be used cautiously, if at all. In other cases, issues that looked contentious may turn out to be reasonably simple to resolve.

The shape that any particular political process will take is thus unpredictable. Things have a habit of turning out quite differently than we might expect. Depending on circumstances, it is often necessary to make changes to the process, to re-define the issue, or even to start all over again part way through the process. Dror (1986) refers to this as “fuzzy gambling”—a very serious game in which not only the odds but also the rules change as the game proceeds, and where surprises often occur.

Policy decisions are made formally through governing bodies, such as legislatures or school boards that pass laws or motions, or through administrators who issue directives. Often, however, the important part of the process occurs well before the formal decision is made. Much of the debate about a proposed piece of legislation will occur within the Cabinet and government bureaucracy before the bill ever gets to the legislature. Similarly, a school board may do much of its hard bargaining over issues outside of the formal board meeting, in discussions among board members. A politician or an administrator may talk with many people before finalizing a decision officially. The meeting described in the prologue to this chapter is an illustration of the difference between a formal decision—to be made in that case, by the school board—and the real decision process. Lengthy participation processes and internal debates mean that decision processes can sometimes take a very long time—years in many instances—even though the formal decision at the end may occur in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Although it is the responsibility of the minister of education to approve new curricula, when these documents reach his or her desk a committee of teachers has probably already been at work for several years on the new curriculum, including its pilot testing in schools. Unless there are very serious concerns, formal approval is usually just that—a formality.

Of course, decisions can be controversial at different levels, meaning that there are different sorts of political processes. In addition to the politics of elections and protests, there are the bureaucratic politics that take place within an organization. There can be quite a bit of politicking within a school board or school over a decision in which the general public is not particularly interested. For example, a decision about workload distribution among a school staff can lead to a great deal of discussion, lobbying, and unhappiness among teachers without attracting much attention from parents. Similarly, decisions about which new curriculum is next to be developed by the department of education may be controversial among teachers but not the public.

Courts also play a role in shaping political decisions. Courts may require political bodies to take action by deciding that some current state of affairs is inappropriate (e.g., rules governing the privacy of students’ files) or by finding an existing law to be invalid and therefore in need of amendment or abolition (e.g., rulings regarding the governance of official minority language schooling). The role of courts is discussed more fully in the next chapter.

Provincial Governments and School Districts
Some elements of the decision-making process in provincial governments have already been discussed in Chapter 2. In most provinces, the main responsibility for decision making lies with the Cabinet and its committees. These groups receive advice from civil servants and from political sources such as ministerial advisers, committees of the political party, backbench members of the governing party, and a wide variety of people and groups who may have access to the premier, the Cabinet, or the minister of education.

Provincial governments also use a variety of other mechanisms to deal with educational policy issues. These may include delegating particular functions to boards or commissions, creating advisory boards, sponsoring commissions of inquiry of various kinds, or undertaking studies of issues. When a government is not sure how to proceed with an issue, for example, it may create a commission to study the matter in more depth and make recommendations. Some issues that have the potential to be contentious are delegated, either in legislation or through Cabinet order, to a separate board or agency. For instance, questions of teacher certification may be handled by a board composed of representatives of the teachers’ organization, the provincial government, the school districts, and other interest groups. This group considers various issues relating to certification and makes recommendations to the minister. Similarly, appeals from property owners to have their property transferred from one school district to another are often heard by bodies created by—but with some independence from—the provincial government.

School districts are created through provincial legislation. The relationship between provincial governments and school districts can be highly political in that each party often would like the other to do something differently. There are political pressures exerted by provincial governments on school boards, and by school boards on provinces. Because it is school districts that actually deliver educational services, the provincial government must achieve most of its policy purposes through the districts. Implementation of a new program, a shift in the handling of special education, more emphasis on learning about AIDS, increased physical fitness—implementation of all of these depends on the active cooperation of schools and school districts.

Although provinces have the power to compel school districts to carry out provincial policies, they were for many years generally reluctant to use this power. School boards have been known to criticize provincial governments quite severely, causing political embarrassment, and in some cases school boards may be closer to the feelings of their constituents. More recently, most governments have taken steps to move authority from school boards to provincial governments. Control over funding has been centralized in eight provinces, and ministers have been given increased power over matters such as curriculum, assessment of student achievement, and public reporting of school outcomes.
Provinces have several means—varying in their degrees of coerciveness— with which to influence what school boards do. First, a province can pass legislation requiring boards to implement a particular program. For example, many provinces have required school boards to implement some form of parent council, and there has been provincial legislation on reporting achievement results that has required schools to adopt new procedures and to deal with new issues. Second, a province can issue regulations under existing legislation. For example, the minister of education in some provinces can issue a regulation specifying the number of professional development days schools can have. Third, a province can issue a policy statement, which, though not binding in law, does put considerable pressure on school districts to comply. For example, a province can issue a statement outlining what it believes school districts ought to do to evaluate teachers, or the steps to be taken in reporting achievement to parents. A school district would need to mount a convincing case to support taking any other direction. There is nothing automatic about which vehicle is used for what purpose. For example, in some provinces reporting to parents is specified in legislation; in others, through regulation; and in others, through policy.

Fourth, a province can provide direct service in a high-priority area, bypassing the school boards by setting up its own programs. This option is not often used now by provincial departments of education, although the provision of correspondence courses is still a provincial responsibility. At one time, most schools for deaf or blind students were run directly by provinces, but many have now been turned over to school districts. Provinces do provide direct service in areas closely related to education, such as employment training.

Fifth, a province can provide incentives for boards to do something. For example, the ministry or department of education might provide grants to start new programs (as happened 25 years ago with special education), training to teachers in a particular area (such as computers), or materials (such as videotapes on health), free or at low cost, all as a way of inducing school districts to do something the province wishes them to do. Sixth, and finally, a province can mobilize opinion as a way of putting pressure on school districts. A minister of education or the premier of a province can make speeches and public statements urging school boards to make their budgets public, or to have school advisory committees. If the idea catches on with the public, school boards will find themselves under pressure to respond, even though there is no official or legal requirement for them to do so.

School boards, on the other hand, also put political pressure on provinces. Their prime means for doing so is to blame various problems on the provincial government, which is, after all, the more senior government. The provincial government may provide less money than a school board wants, resulting in program changes or school closures, which the board will then blame on inadequate provincial funding. The province may require school districts to implement various programs against the board’s wishes; the board may then blame the resulting problems or concerns on the actions of the province. If boards can mobilize enough public support, they can force a change in provincial policy even though they have no legal ability to do so. Thus, each party uses a variety of political devices to make it appear to be advancing the public interest.

Politics within School Districts
Although most of the legal authority for education rests with the provinces, much of the public debate occurs at the local level, within a school district. Typically in such cases there are two or more factions within the school or district that have very different policy goals. The prologue to this chapter offered one such example. Another good example is a school district caught between a fixed amount of revenue provided by the province and pressures to expand programs and services. Groups of parents and others will argue that class sizes are too large, that small schools need to be kept open, or that special education supports need to be increased. However, the board simply does not have enough revenue to do all the things that are being asked for. The school board can be caught in the middle of this debate, which may be very heated and involve stormy meetings, boycotts, threats, and highly polarized positions.
Another reason for political debate in a school district may have to do with the perceived fairness of resource allocation. People living in a particular area may feel that their local school is not being treated as well as another school in another part of the district. Boards can face conflict over which school will be renovated next, which school will get an additional teacher, or which school will be allowed to develop a new program. Conflicts within a school district are often mirrored by conflicts among the school trustees. In many school districts, school trustees are elected by ward. Each part of the district elects one or more trustees who together make up the board. Trustees may thus feel a strong allegiance to the interests of their particular ward when it comes to issues such as budget allocation or school closings. Even though the board must finally make a single, binding decision, the debate at the school board itself can then be very intense, and conflicts can be very difficult to resolve.

Such heated issues are not, however, the norm. For the most part, education proceeds with very little political debate. School board meetings tend to be uneventful, even dull to the outside observer. Conflict and debate, when it does occur, is frequently over relatively minor concerns. Major issues in schooling, such as grading, promotion practices, curricula, or equitable treatment of all students, are rarely the subject of public or political discussion. Indeed, given the importance of schooling, some commentators believe that there should be more public debate over pedagogical issues.

Advocating more public debate is one thing, but finding ways to create it is another. There are significant obstacles to doing so. The nature of the mass media, discussed earlier, is one problem. Moreover, there are many issues competing for public attention at any one time. Those whose main interest is health care, the environment, or economic policy also want more informed public debate. Do people have the time and energy to be involved in all of these?
There are, however, strategies schools could use to foster more discussion about important educational issues. Providing more information to parents and inviting their opinions is one method, while bringing information about schools to the attention of the broader public (e.g., through open houses, displays, or public forums) is another. More effort could also be made to keep print and electronic media reporters informed about educational issues. The Internet is an increasingly powerful means of communication with the public, and although many schools and school boards have websites, relatively few use these as two-way communication tools.

Politics within the School
Individual schools are not exempt from political issues. Politics within the school are known as micropolitics (e.g., Blase, 1993; Mawhinney, 1999). These issues can be internal or external. Internally, teachers may disagree with one another, or with the principal, as to which program areas are most important. Some staff may want stricter grading standards, while others may see grades as inherently unfair and educationally unsound. Staff may disagree on how best to teach reading, or on how much emphasis to give to art and music programs. Or there may simply be personality conflicts—people who do not like each other, or who feel that some colleagues are not doing their fair share of the work. A skillful administrator must be able to identify such conflicts and to work to resolve them in ways that respect everybody’s interests yet also give primacy to educational goals and needs. The danger with such conflicts is that having people work together harmoniously may be given greater importance than providing the best possible learning situation for students.

Pressure may also be placed on the school by a dissatisfied community. For example, school boards may face pressure from groups of parents who want more music programs or anti-bullying efforts or less testing. Instead of reaching out to work with people to meet their needs, some schools will try to avoid responding by treating parents as ignorant, by using technical language that cloaks real meaning, or by stalling. For schools that display a genuine interest in the community’s character and needs, the community can be an enormous source of strength and support, as will be seen in Chapter 8. But when schools lose touch with their communities, they can find themselves isolated and subject to very powerful pressures to change.

The Complexity of Political Decision Making
The term decision-making process is actually a rather simplistic and abstract way of describing how decisions are made. What appear to be simple decisions on the surface can have far-reaching consequences. The decision to consolidate rural schools has had major implications not just for schools, but for rural life in Canada. The decision to establish or maintain provincial examinations has reduced teachers’ control over their classrooms in some important ways. The decision to move control of education on reserves to First Nations has had significant impact on those jurisdictions. More mundane decisions, such as reassigning a teacher or changing a dress code, can have major effects on individuals.

Many political issues are revisited again and again. Thus, rather than thinking of political decisions as final, it would be more accurate to think of them as temporary accommodations that may be changed again at a later date. We have already discussed several tensions that have been constants in Canadian education—the tension between the common public school system and the need to accommodate the diverse interests of a multicultural society (see Box 3.3); the tension between local control and centralized control of schools; and the tension between the role of professionals and the role of citizens in directing schools. Language and religion have been particularly important as major forces affecting education in Canada. These issues persist in education policy, manifesting themselves over and over again as particular decisions are made.

Some may view the unceasing debate as tiresome, wishing that the issue could be decided once and for all. It may make more sense to be glad that we live in a world in which we can learn from experience and remake our future to take advantage of what we have learned. The possibility of improvement—the chance to make things better—is always open to us. In the 1960s, hundreds of small Canadian schools were closed. Now, in most provinces, school-closing decisions are made much more carefully and with a great deal of community participation. Fifty or 100 years ago, Aboriginal young people were taken away from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak Native languages. Today, many more Aboriginal children go to school in their own communities, and there is a slowly increasing emphasis on teaching in Native languages.

We are not suggesting that things are getting better in every way. While some situations improve, other problems are as serious as ever and new problems are constantly arising to challenge us. But the debate about what we should do, together with the willingness to think and argue about what is best for education, is a vital part of trying to make the world a better place.

BOX 3.3 Ongoing Themes: Accommodating Immigrants and Languages

Canada has for a long time been substantially a nation of immigrants. Part of the reason for developing public schools in central Canada in the mid-nineteenth century had to do with the desire to ensure that the large numbers of German, Scottish, and Irish immigrants were socialized into the dominant values of the Canada of that day. There was no thought to accommodating or supporting the maintenance of immigrants’ own cultures and languages. The same was true of the great waves of immigration around the turn of the last century, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Mennonites, Jews, Icelanders, Poles, and others came to Canada. The schools saw their task as being one of teaching these people “Canadian” ways, that is, teaching them to adjust to Canada as it existed when they arrived.

An inspector of schools in Saskatchewan wrote in 1918:

The people of foreign countries who come to Canada after having reached maturity . . . will never become “true Canadians” . . . but there is an important duty to perform in seeing that the children of these newcomers are given every opportunity to receive proper training for intelligent citizenship. . . . [The] public school . . . is the great melting-pot into which must be placed these diverse racial groups, and from which will eventually emerge the pure gold of Canadian citizenship. (Anderson, 1918, p. 8)

More recently, there has been an increasing, though by no means universal, tendency to allow greater diversity in the schools, to be more accepting of different ways of living that Canadians of different origins may have. Schools have begun to offer programs in the languages of immigrant communities. But these general statements disguise the controversies that persist. Heritage language programs are primarily offered outside of regular school hours. The Peel Board of Education in Ontario lost a court battle to prevent a Sikh student from wearing a kirpan (a ceremonial dagger) to school. There has been heated debate in many Canadian communities about the creation of French immersion schools, which has sometimes meant bussing non-immersion students to schools outside their local area. Disputes about what, if any, religious exercises should be held in schools have been quite bitter in some provinces.


Duffy, A. (2004). Class struggles: Public education and the eew Canadian. Toronto: Atkinson Foundation <www.atkinsonfoundation.org>

Social Planning Council of Toronto. (2005). Renewing Toronto’s ESL Programs. Toronto: Social Planning Council <www.socialplanningtoronto.ca>.

The evidence is that most political decisions are influenced by many factors. We can identify four broad categories of influence on decisions: political, economic, ideological, and pragmatic.

Political influences concern who is in favour of, or opposed to, a particular position, without necessarily considering the merits of their position. These considerations are always important and should be taken seriously. When making a decision, both elected officials and employed staff must weigh who is for or against it, and how intense the opposition may be. Provincial and federal governments may take opinion polls, or they may pay attention to letters and phone calls. A school board will assess its perception of the balance of opinion in its community. A school principal will think about how staff members and parents feel about any given issue, and about how those with different opinions might be won over. The weighing of opinion before making a decision is a reasonable and universal political practice.

Some people criticize government bodies for making decisions based on their popularity. The use of public-opinion polls to shape government policy is one manifestation of this tendency. While polls can be used and policies can be endorsed simply to favour what is popular, the issue is not so simple. After all, we elect governments to do what we favour; it is hardly logical, then, to dislike them for taking our views into account before making decisions! It is not evident that people would be more satisfied if decisions were made without regard to their views.

An alternative influence to the use of polls or other opinion measurements lies in the pressures brought to bear by various groups, as discussed earlier. This has its own problems, as the best-organized and loudest lobbies may be representative of quite small numbers of people. For example, polling has consistently shown that the great majority of Canadians favour the provision of sex education in schools, but lobbies against sex education have been effective enough to block programs for some years, and to alter their content in many parts of the country.

Policy decisions are also affected by economic considerations. No matter what people say about taxes and public spending, political choices will always be constrained by financial realities and by the possible effects of policy choices on the economy as a whole. (In Chapter 5, we discuss more fully the way in which the availability of money affects what choices are possible.) Much of the current debate in Canada about education policy, for example, is framed in terms of how education can contribute to economic growth, even though this is only one purpose of education.
Ideology plays a critical role in shaping politics and policy choices. By ideology we mean people’s deep-seated beliefs about how the world is and how it ought to be, beliefs that are held at such a deep level that they are rarely called into question. Everyone has such beliefs, many of which were inculcated when we were young (partly through the schools, it might be added). Although we tend to use the term “ideology” to disparage those with whom we disagree, ideology is what shapes, in large part, the agenda of political parties and of all of us as individuals. If one begins with the belief that people will not work unless they are policed and compelled to do so, then one is inclined toward policies such as more testing of students or closer evaluation of teachers. If one believes that poverty is an underlying cause of educational problems, one will be inclined to support programs and activities that reduce or ameliorate some of the effects of poverty, such as school nutrition programs or preschool programs. The ideology of individuals and groups will have a critical effect on many policy decisions, chiefly by shaping the alternatives that are considered in the first place.
Ideology intersects with pragmatic considerations, however. What we want to do has to be matched with what we think can be done. Each of us takes for granted certain assumptions about what is possible, assumptions that also shape our political proposals. Whatever our ideological convictions, we don’t propose what we believe to be impossible. An election commitment to eliminate winter storms in Canada would be popular if anyone believed it could be done, but because it isn’t seen as possible it never gets on the agenda. To take a less fanciful example, a proposal to ensure that all students learn to read well in the primary grades, while widely seen as desirable, would probably also be seen as impossible, and hence would not likely command much political support. Goals have to be fitted against capacities in designing policies.

Policy choices are also constrained by the range of options that people are aware of in the first place. This is one reason why policy ideas seem to move across boundaries, so that what is done in one place is often copied in other places. An initiative adopted in one state or province may get picked up by the media, or communicated at various national or international meetings and conferences. If the idea appeals to leaders in other settings it may be taken up there as well. An example would be the move by many provinces in the 1990s to reduce the number of school boards, so that over a 10-year period, eight of the provinces took steps in this direction. Levin (1998a) suggests that these movements in policy may be comparable to the spread of diseases. However, there is also evidence that the movement of policy ideas across jurisdictions is a complex matter shaped by cultural, historical, and institutional factors as well as by political demands (Levin, 2001a).

Many educators feel that public perceptions of schooling are largely shaped by misleading portrayals of schooling in the mass media that focus unfairly on problems. Some claim that the private ownership of much of the mass media and its dependence on advertising as a main revenue source will lead inevitably to its reflecting the views of the corporate world. Others take the view that the prime interest of the media is readers (or viewers or listeners as the case may be) and that coverage will focus on what draws attention, which tends to be conflict rather than success.
The amount and depth of media coverage vary not so much by policy substance as by policymaking drama.
Media writers and producers seem attracted most to issue conflicts that can be personalized as disputes between attractive, repellent, or provocative antagonists. Hence basic school funding bills may receive only perfunctory coverage, while a policy fight involving a colourful governor and combative adversaries will be seized upon to provide one captivating—if not always enlightening—account after another. (Mazzoni, 1993, p. 371)

Critics also charge that superficial reporting of events does not lead to a truly informed public (Nadeau & Giasson, 2003). Reports do not provide adequate background to understand complex issues. Media issues also tend to shift rapidly, so that today’s story is soon replaced by another. Very few media sources have staff who cover education full-time or who have sufficient educational background to explore the issues in depth.

Just as the media help to shape conceptions of problems, they may also play a role in advancing particular policy ideas or solutions. For example, extensive coverage of school-by-school test results may either openly or implicitly advance an agenda of parental choice. The media, especially some print media, can be quite blatant in crusading for particular policy approaches, such as the drive by newspapers in many countries in recent years to support reduced taxation rates and reduced public services. At the same time, many lobby groups have become increasingly skilled at using the media to get their messages to the broad public. Schools, too, have learned to pay more attention to working with the media to get positive coverage of their work.

The electronic and print mass media do provide a primary source of information for most people, especially those who are not parents, about educational issues. The question is the extent to which reporting shapes people’s ideas or simply reflects and caters to existing opinion, however uninformed that may be. Some evidence suggests that media portrayals are powerful, but not determinative, and that people filter their attention to the media based on their beliefs and other experiences (Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992).

The powerful role of the media has sometimes had the effect of making educators wary of open communication in fear that it will be used against them. Similarly, governments may feel that the media intend from the outset to be critical, so they are cautious about what they say and how they say it. In the long run these tendencies may be self-defeating, however, in that they may have the effect of increasing public suspicion and cynicism.

A policy is usually intended to achieve certain results. Each policy is guided by some underlying logic of cause and effect as to how the desired results can be obtained: if we do x then y will follow, or if we want y then we must first do or have x. If we require students to attend school, they are more likely to learn. If we place a curriculum unit on environmental protection in grade 5, students will learn about this important subject. If we evaluate teachers regularly, they will be better teachers, which in turn will result in students learning more. These chains of reasoning, however, are not always explicit in the policy itself; they may have to be inferred.

If education were simply a matter of writing the right policies, it would be relatively easy. Unfortunately, the world is rarely as neat as logic would have it, and there are several slipping points between a policy statement and the anticipated results. For one thing, actions intended to have one effect may have quite another, or even several different ones, when put into practice. For example, if students are given grades as an incentive for them to learn more, the goal of getting good grades may become more important than the goal of learning. Every policy has such unanticipated consequences.

Moreover, making a policy statement is not the same as having the policy implemented. The fact that laws have penalties for breaking them shows that people do not always do what they are told. Every policy statement is violated sometimes, and some policies are hardly observed at all. In schools, we have learned that writing new curriculum documents will not by itself change what teachers teach or how they teach (see Chapter 7). If a policy does not fit with what people believe, or how they are used to behaving, it is not likely to have the desired impact unless a major effort is made to help, cajole, or threaten people into changing their behaviour. Hence, policy statements, though important, do not by themselves guarantee particular results. The success of a policy depends on the people who have to put it into practice; in schools, this is most often teachers and students.

How do we know what the outcomes of policies are? In a surprising number of cases, we don’t. Many educational policies have continued for decades without any careful attempt to assess their consequences, whether planned or unintended. Schools continue to use certain kinds of instructional approaches (typically a large amount of talking by teachers and seatwork by students), organizational practices (division by age into grades or semestering secondary schools), and motivational practices (rewarding good behaviour with stickers, tokens, or prizes) without collecting very much evidence as to how well these practices work. In an enterprise such as education, which is committed officially to the pursuit of knowledge, it seems odd that there is so little reflecting on the results of our own actions. Research on education, which is one (though only one) way of learning about the impacts of policies, is a small and relatively uninfluential enterprise in Canada; very few current school practices can be justified on the basis of research findings.
Why should this be so? One reason is that policies are not simply, as was just suggested above, intended to achieve particular consequences. Most education policies have multiple purposes and try to serve multiple interests. In addition to having some impact on what happens in the schools, they may be intended as symbolic statements about what is seen as valuable, to make particular groups feel included in the process, or (as we will see with respect to laws in the next chapter) to be vague enough to allow a wide variety of responses at the local level. Of course, if a policy is primarily symbolic in intention, its purpose is achieved as soon as it is promulgated; what effects it might actually have is another matter entirely.

This may seem an unduly cynical position. It may suggest that politics is hopeless and venal, and that we should look for alternative ways of organizing ourselves. But it is much easier to criticize our current political setup than to find a better alternative.

Unhappiness with politics is not hard to find. Many Canadians feel that our current processes are not serving their needs, that politicians are self-serving and interested only in their own re-election, and that somehow politics has become preoccupied with the wrong things, while the big issues facing our country are not being addressed. A disturbing result is that levels of voting and of political interest in Canada are declining. Political processes can lead to conflict, bad decisions, and bad results. Any political process can be improved, and such improvements should be sought. But it is vitally important for each citizen to retain his or her faith that political processes, whatever their faults, are important and worth struggling over. Democracy rests on the belief that people by and large can and will make reasonable decisions about how a society should work. These issues are worked out through politics.
Critical statements about educational politics by educators often imply that schools would be better if educators made the important decisions themselves. Thus, one alternative to politics is to turn more decisions about education over to the professionals. In this model, teachers and administrators would make all of the policy decisions affecting education.

While such a model might appear inviting to those of us who work in education, it has serious problems. Many decisions about education do rest with professional educators, but educators themselves are by no means in agreement about matters of educational policy. Teachers disagree among themselves about grading policies, the best way to teach languages, discipline, and many other issues.

The claim to expert authority must also rest on some demonstrated knowledge, unique to the experts, that entitles them to make decisions exclusively. We might accept that professional educators have important advice to give about teaching and curriculum, but do we think that they should establish the goals of schools independent of what students, parents, and other people want? Is the decision about whether to put more stress on science a matter in which educators have some particular expertise, or is it a judgment that involves all of us in deciding what we value? Does the decision about whether schools should be based in neighbourhoods or instead be open to all rest on expertise? In fact, most of the truly important decisions about education are matters that require judgments on the part of all of us, not educators exclusively. Moreover, education is publicly funded, and it is difficult to think that the public will provide billions of dollars for education while leaving the entire determination about the use of the money to teachers and administrators. Would we be willing to leave all policy decisions about national defence to soldiers, or all decisions about highways to transport engineers?

This brings us to the second vehicle that is often suggested as a substitute for politics—the use of markets. In this view, education should be turned into a commodity, much like cars. People should be free to buy as much or as little as they want, wherever they want. Such a model tries to eliminate political judgments and replace them with the decisions of individual consumers. Despite current conventional wisdom, there are even more problems with simple market solutions than there are with governance by experts. For one thing, it is possible to argue that there are no truly free markets in the world, and that all markets are affected in important ways by decisions made through public political processes. Given the highly interdependent nature of our world, it is just not possible to separate one area of economic and social activity from others. To take one example, the money available for education may be affected by changing employment levels in industry, but these in turn may be affected by the number and quality of people completing educational programs.

It is also important to note that education is something that benefits not simply the person being educated, but all of us, which makes it a public good (more will be said about this in Chapter 5). Suppose, under a market system, some people decided to partake of no formal education at all—just as people can choose not to buy a car or go to a movie. Would we be satisfied with this? Would we even want to allow it? Compulsory attendance laws all across the world bear witness to the view that education is too important to be left entirely to individual choice. If so, then we cannot simply rely on market mechanisms to replace political decisions.

We take the position that politics, despite its meanness, messiness, and shortcomings, is a necessary and fundamental part of education. Teachers need to be aware of political processes, and they need to see themselves as political actors. There are many ways in which teachers can influence politics. Many teachers are actively involved in political parties. Many teachers have been elected and have held Cabinet positions in Canadian governments. Others are active in teachers’ organizations working for the reforms and changes they value. Many teachers have been elected as school board members in the places they live because of their deep concern for education. Teachers are also active as parents and in many community organizations.

For other teachers, their most important political work occurs in the school and with students. Teachers make a political contribution when they practise democratic values in their classrooms, treat students with respect and empathy, discuss important issues with students, work to break down stereotypes, collaborate with their colleagues for the betterment of the school, and create closer ties between the school and the community. As was pointed out in Chapter 1, the role of the teacher is a moral one, and the teacher’s moral actions provide very clear political messages about her or his views of justice and right.

Political processes, like other human processes, are far from perfect. It is easy to see why people become frustrated with them. But for better or worse, politics is the way in which human societies make decisions about many important things. We therefore need to understand something about politics and to work for change if we are to understand and improve schools.

Key Terms
Argument p. 73
Decision-making process p. 88
Economic considerations p. 91
Evidence-based decision making p. 74
External stakeholders p. 78
Ideology p. 91
Internal stakeholders p. 77
Legislation p. 85
Policy p. 67
Policy statements p. 70
Politics p. 69
Regulations p. 86
Stakeholders p. 77

1.   Schooling is greatly affected by a wide variety of policy decisions, some of which are listed at the beginning of this chapter. Working first individually and then in small groups in your class, define what you mean by the term policy, then brainstorm as many areas of education policy as you can. Indicate whether, to your knowledge, these policy decisions are made by teachers, students, parents, school administrators, or others.

2.   Taking one or more of the policy areas defined in Exercise 1, define how this area is political, using the definition of politics on page 69. How does this issue shape (1) what is taught; (2) to and by whom it is taught; and (3) where, when, and how it is taught?

3.   Again taking one of the policy areas you have defined, find out what the current situation is in your province. What measures or policies, if any, are in place, and how did they come to be there? Is this issue controversial? Why or why not? Good sources of information for this inquiry could be local school administrators, local school trustees, teacher organization officials, or officials of the provincial Department or Ministry of Education.

4.   Select a current educational issue in your province or community (perhaps one that has recently been in the news). Think about how the issue has been defined. Whose definition of the issue appears to be uppermost? What other definitions or views of the issue might exist that are not being expressed? Why aren’t they?

5.   Find a position paper or brief on education that was written in your community. (It need not be recent; archives are good sources for such material, and so are groups such as teachers’ or trustees’ associations, or parent groups of various kinds.) Comment on how the brief uses evidence and argument to advance its point of view. How fair and open-minded do you think the position in the brief is?

6.   Identify a stakeholder group in education. Interview a member of this group to determine the group’s position and its actions on one or two current issues. Look for the inside story, not just platitudes.

7.   Attend a meeting of your local school board. Keep careful notes on what you observe. In what ways does the meeting contribute to or prevent the careful and full debate of important policy issues in education? Was the meeting, in your view, political? Why or why not?

8.   Using one or two of the issues identified in one of the earlier exercises, develop a list of people (individuals or groups) who would be affected by a decision made about that issue. Should all those affected have some role to play in making the decision? Do they? How, if at all, should the decision-making process on this issue be changed in regard to participation?

9.   Suppose you were an elected official facing a difficult political decision, such as whether to sell condoms in high-school washrooms. What strategies might you use to work toward a good decision based on community discussion? What if it were a K–12 school?

10. Interview one or two teachers. Ask them their views on politics in education. How, if at all, are they involved in politics? Do they see their work in the school and classroom as political? Why or why not?

Further Reading
The general literature on the politics of education is enormous, and the Canadian literature is also substantial. Among the best-known writers on politics and policy generally are Deborah Stone, Charles Lindblom, and Murray Edelman, whose work has important implications for education. Often cited on education politics from other countries are Michael Apple and William Boyd in the United States and Stephen Ball in Britain. Much of the Canadian literature concerns specific political issues or events.

•     Two recent examples that embody very different political views are Mark Holmes’s The Reformation of Canada’s Schools (1998) and Alison Taylor’s The Politics of Educational Reform in Alberta (2001).
•     Ronald Manzer’s important book Public Schools and Political Ideas (1994) provides a thorough discussion of the politics of language, religion, and secondary education in Canada, tying these into a history of Canadian liberal thought.
•     Levin’s Education Reform: From Origins to Outcomes (2001) provides a comparison of education politics in Alberta and Manitoba with those in several other countries, and Levin’s Governing Education (2005) is an inside examination of the realities of government and policymaking in a Canadian province (Manitoba).
•     There is no Canadian journal devoted specifically to the politics of education, but articles on political and policy issues appear in a wide range of academic and practitioner publications.
•     A great deal of information on the politics of education in Canada and its provinces is available through the websites of various organizations such as provincial governments, teacher organizations, and school board organizations. The Canadian Education Association site <www.cea-ace.ca> provides highlights of recent education developments across the country.

In recent years a number of think tanks have produced research and position papers on schools, including the Canadian Policy Research Network, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, and many others. Their material is available on the Web and through newsletters, research reports, and other documents.