by Paul W. Bennett

Public education reform, in Canada as in the U.S., is focused on improving student learning through systematic testing, data analysis, and system-wide initiatives. How do we zero in on individual school improvement and fundamentals such as curriculum quality and teaching? Time is running out to close the gaps between the educated and undereducated in our society.

As our population ages, global competition escalates, and society cries out for imaginative ideas, we ignore public education at our peril. Indeed, private and independent schools need a healthy public system if they are to continue to thrive here in Canada.

The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the system, educational reform evolves in waves where quick fixes and fads are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises. Since the early 1990s, Canadian education has rediscovered “student learning,” and leading educators have reluctantly embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the knowledge economy.

Student testing and accountability for results are here to stay, and for good reason.  School rankings were initiated in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and they are now grudgingly accepted by most education authorities.  Only eight years ago, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) began producing and publishing its own system of rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials. Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics. Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s Report Cards, the Halifax Region School Board and the New Brunswick education department have even begun to release and post their own student test results in individual school-accountability reports.

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As 2010 rolls on, new and profoundly important questions are being raised: What have we gained through reform initiatives? Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning? And observing the painful lessons of U.S. education reform—if, via test results, schools are repeatedly identified as “lowest performing” and they fail to respond, what next? Should we in Canada begin looking at more radical measures such as “turnaround school” strategies or “fresh start” initiatives? Or is it time to return to fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability?

When it comes to turning around public education, there are no easy answers. Yet the raging “school wars” in the U.S. do provide a few vital lessons. One of America’s best-known education experts, Diane Ravitch, has recently pointed a way forward in her newly released bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Breaking from her past position, she now says that quick fixes such as testing and charter schools won’t necessarily lead to higher standards, more engaged young people, or even better schools.Amid the public clamour over the latest wave of U.S. reform initiatives, Diane Ravitch warns us not to lose sight of what is truly fundamental.  The essential core, she maintains, consists of  a good knowledge-rich curriculum; motivated quality teachers; informed and engaged students; and school conditions that make learning possible.

Have we  lost our way?  If so, how can we get back on track?  Now, it’s your turn.