Democratic Possibilities for Educational Policy-Making: A Comparison of Ontario & Porto Alegre

Article excerpt

Curriculum policy: An overview of formulation

Large-scale, centralized education reform has occurred in a variety of jurisdictions in recent years. Such reforms usually include new approaches to funding, and major changes to policies governing school board organization, curriculum, student assessment, and teacher working conditions. Educational reforms are shaped by the processes undertaken to develop them, and by the variety of individuals and groups involved in the process. While there is a great deal of research and coverage concerning the outcomes and impacts of educational policies, the process of educational policy development and its relationship to democracy is rarely investigated. This article will touch on a variety of aspects of reform, with a primary focus on curriculum.

Werner (1991:107) posed the important question: who should have the right to determine curriculum goals and content? Since curriculum policy documents define (1) what is to be taught and (2) how it is to be taught, reflecting a certain set of values, defining priorities and legitimating what is worth learning, to answer Wemer's question we must understand how such documents emerge. Like Werner, many theorists (see, for example. Michael Apple, Stephen Ball and others) contend that arrival at curriculum policy is the result of negotiations and trade-offs between those in positions of power. Research into the development of curriculum policy has tended to highlight struggles over value, feasibility, and politicization. Stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, schools, boards and the private sector have ideas about what the curriculum should include and exclude. Clearly, by including or emphasizing one thing, other things are left out. Whatever is included can privilege or advantage some individuals and groups, while disadvantaging others. It is through curriculum policy development that these sorts of decisions are made. The processes of policy development in Ontario and Porto Alegre show two very different approaches to negotiating these important curricular decisions.

Different places, different contexts

Ontario is the largest province in Canada, representing approximately one-third of the nation's population. In Canada, education policy is established at the provincial level. The advent of Ontario school reform (SR) in the 1990's brought about swift and significant changes to education and curriculum policy, both of which are the responsibility of the province. SR included a new approach to funding, and major changes to policies governing school board organization, curriculum, student assessment, and teacher working conditions. Features of new curriculum policy for grades K through 12 introduced between 1995 and 2000 included significant reduction in the number of secondary school courses offered, more prescriptive and comprehensive learning expectations for each course and subject area in K-12 education, and a standardized structure for assessment and for organization of expectations. Here, we will focus primarily on policy processes associated with secondary school curriculum policy.

SR was initiated by the Progressive Conservative government in power at the time, shortly after its landslide election under the platform of a "Common Sense Revolution" which defeated the relatively left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) previously in power. The process of education reform was highly politicized, and drew a great deal of media attention relative to previous reform efforts. Critics suggest that Ontario Minister of Education John Snobelen manufactured a "crisis in education" in 1995 to justify "contradictory and chaotic" reform through a series of hastily drawn up new policies. School reform was introduced less than three years after the Progressive Conservative government had come to power. Robertson (1998) quotes Minister Snobelen as saying "Power is the rate at which your intentions become reality. …