What value is Public Education?

The question deserves some context of course.

There are some who feel the system is struggling under government intervention intended to keep one group of politicians in power by managing to hold on to a large socially liberal voting base. The criticism is that by capitulating to union demands and the apparent ensuing soaring labour costs, the real job of fundamental education is being eroded. The opposing argument is that strong emphasis on demanding better learning and more specialty trained educators has to be recognized with appropriate compensation given over-filled classrooms, in order to prevent a return to the parochial schools of the past.

Not lost in these debates is the reality of changing demographics and a roller coaster of enrollment distractions. As families migrate for a variety of reasons, struggling from living inside the economic wall of major centres, and salivating about moving to smaller communities with more reasonably priced homes, the population shifts are consequential. Further, Canada is considered a global shiny jewel for new immigrants adding diversity and fostering dreams of safety, a strong history of democratic principles and opportunity for economic advantage. That disturbs some as though the newcomers will take away jobs. As our national birth rate declines, who is going to supply the business needs already crying for new employment if not them?? Some fear the inevitable point when the integrity of the system is under too much weight and verging on collapse as educational planning and investment are dependent on diminishing public funding. When the system is funded on head counts, population changes are a significant impact to annual budgets.

If learning is the goal, can public education survive the societal changes, animus and conflict in political circles or the race to compete globally from within?

Our present-day environment is changing more rapidly than ever before, on all fronts, and our tools are new and still morphing. Our life skill preparations, moving from an agricultural society to an industrial society, are exponentially more frightening in our explosive informational society. So also, the learning techniques are changing equally as rapidly. It has an experimental flavour to it at times and that worries many. It also demonstrates incredible success and occasional failure.

What is public school learning then? One pretty solid definition is that it is the transferring of relevant information to a youthful population for the purpose of creating a competent adult base capable of managing our country in the future. Using a sports metaphor, anyone who enjoys baseball can opine about the eyesight of an umpire. However, I suggest many of us would refuse the job because of that lay-person criticism. However, how do you become expert as either the one who judges the value of a ball tossed at 100mph… or for that matter the expert who is doing the tossing? Anybody can throw a ball right. The pitcher learned how to get it across the plate as a kid and then managed to get it in a tiny strike zone. Now we see surgical placement using aerodynamic principles to pick a corner, change speed, alter angle, curving and dropping strategically and even baffling those in the park with some crazy knuckle ball. That’s learning. It’s basic fundamental awareness, a sequential value-added knowledge base, repetition, expanded research and application over decades. And we expect the umpire to figure all that out a couple of hundred times over two hours and not blink, let alone make a mistake? They had to learn how to see it…even better than batters! That’s learning too.

Are our children and our children’s children learning that way?

Some educators and administrators want a more philosophical learning pattern: ‘Inquiry Learning’ or ‘Discovery Learning’. Simply described, it suggests that we want curiosity and innovation to develop a variety of methods to achieve the same outcomes. Can a student learn to be a knuckle ball thrower intuitively? Sure, providing the fundamentals are already strong, the coaches have the right skills, the drive is sincere, and the environment is designed to move toward success. This might explain the variety of new math approaches we, as older parents, are flummoxed with. There is room for critical thinking, not in and of itself but as a tool to add to the accumulated depth of knowledge that leads to that inquiry. Who does that? The educators. However, with such diverse learning styles of our youth today, it requires proper tools and specialized training. That costs money.

And we are back to the debate of value for money spent in education as compared to value of education.

Both are important.

Engaging youth at each stage of their brain development is a monumental task. We need to manage the dollars to maximize the learning for the majority of our youth. We need accountability in administration of those dollars and delivery of curriculum that challenges our youth to want more. Eventually we need everyone to buy into lifelong learning if only to stay ahead of the curve of new knowledge assaulting us through social media, innovation and global expectations.

We need public education like never before.

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