Magazine article Teach

The Danger [Posed by Demand for Changes to Education Systems]

Magazine article Teach

The Danger [Posed by Demand for Changes to Education Systems]

Article excerpt

Some time ago in this column I warned that the general public felt that our education system was a failure and would demand changes. This is now clearly happening, with provincial governments snatching control of education away from local school boards in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario, and Alberta and Ontario whacking big chunks out of education budgets. Teachers' unions across the country are sitting up and taking notice, and individual teachers are wondering how safe their jobs might be, and how far this all might go.

The answers are not reassuring, for this is but the thin edge of the wedge. The danger is real, significant, and profound in its implications, not only for teachers, but the education system and society as a whole. But why is this happening now, and what, if anything, can educators do about it?

What is happening is the result of many different influences coming together. I don't have room to go into detail about them, but here is a summary:

- The baby boomers have school age children, which means that they have become intensely interested in what happens in education. And, as always with the boomers, what the boomers want, they get: politicians have discovered education as a policy hot-button, and want to be seen to be doing something -- anything -- to change education, even if they haven't the foggiest notion what they are doing. The result is policy chaos.

- The demand for education has not only risen, it will continue to rise. The number of jobs available with a bare high school diploma has fallen dramatically since the 1960's, and will fall further. This is largely due to the twin pincers of foreign competition and domestic education. Any job that can be done as well by a worker making 20 an hour in a developing country as by a $10 an hour worker in a developed country will migrate from the rich country to the poor country. Meanwhile, companies in rich countries are defending themselves by making ever-increasing use of automation. By and large they are successful, but even when they are, their success further decreases the number of jobs in the rich countries. And the more powerful and sophisticated that computers get, the wider the range of jobs that can be automated. This means that the only work that our children may have open to them will fall into one of two categories: dead-end, "hamburger flipper" type jobs, and non-routine, creative work that requires innovation, entrepreneurial skills, and a high degree of thought and knowledge. Accordingly, the standards of education from the 80's and early 90's are no longer good enough, and "back to basics" is a prescription for disaster in a world where 21st century education needs are markedly different, and go well beyond 20th or 19th century needs.

- The aging of the population implies much more than sensitizing boomers to the education system. First, it is causing overcrowding in our classrooms as the boomers put their kids through school. Primary schools are getting their biggest school populations now; high school populations will continue to rise until around the 2008-09 school year. Yet, there will be no budget increases to cope with the higher numbers of students.

Second, baby boomers comprise the largest cohort of teachers, and they will be reaching their maximum salaries between now and somewhere around 2010. …

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