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What kids will learn in school
Thursday, August 23, 2001

A friend of ours has shaken out the last penny in her piggy bank to send her daughter to private school this fall. "The public school was training her for a brilliant future," she says, "providing she wanted to work for the Save the Whales Foundation."

What pushed her over the edge? It wasn't the strikes and endless wrangling over teaching time and extracurriculars, or the decrepit cafeteria that needs to be repainted, or the playground equipment they tore down that has to be rebuilt with bake-sale money (although those things didn't help). It wasn't the teachers, either, most of whom are kind and conscientious and work hard. It was the dawning realization that she and the people who run Ontario's elementary-school system have two completely different ideas of what school is there for.

For those who need a timely reminder of this difference of opinion, the teachers union has obliged. Last week, it voted overwhelmingly in favour of encouraging cash-strapped school boards to cough up extra money for educational materials reflecting "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender realities."

Naturally, the usual culture skirmishes immediately broke out between parents who think books such as Daddy's Roommate and Asha's Mums belong in Grade 3 classrooms, and those who don't. "Our young students live any one of a multitude of different lifestyles," said one supportive parent. "They should be able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum that they study every day." (I suspect Ontario has more Ubangi than transgendered people, but that's a quibble.)

Our friend really doesn't care how many mums or daddies Asha has. What bugs her is that the neighbourhood public school appears to be far more intent on teaching the virtues of recycling, anti-racism, non-violence, respect for diversity, and saving the planet than it is on academics and achievement.

In fact, she thinks instruction in diversity is great. She just wishes that Canada's largest public-school system offered some diversity in instruction.

But unless she enrolls her kid in French immersion (a very popular alternative for the urban elites in search of higher academic standards), she's out of luck. Most of the province's elementary schools, especially ones in so-called better neighbourhoods, remain firmly in the grip of a progressivist philosophy that maintains that their most important job is not to inspire kids to get high marks, but to nurture a high self-concept and good interpersonal skills.

Competition is out. Working and playing well with others is in. In fact, competition is thought to be dangerous for the young, as are standardized tests and any type of evaluation that compares a kid's or school's performance to that of other kids or schools. Like snowflakes, no two children are alike, so how can you meaningfully compare them?

For what it's worth, progressivist doctrine has always been strongest in Ontario. And affluent Ontario's elementary-school kids underperform kids in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. People who study these things (not all of them Tories) say that, in terms of value for money, Ontario has one of the most underachieving elementary-school systems in the world.

The teachers union offers a panoply of courses and workshops to help their members hone their classroom skills. These are a rich stew of every kind of learning fad. Teachers can learn to help their students become empowered (which seems to be the current euphemism for making them behave). They can take courses in multiple intelligences, and something called "live event learning," and co-operative learning (in which a group of kids is supposed to teach itself) and getting kids to keep reflective journals and portfolios (also very big these days). They can learn just about everything except how to directly improve their students' math and reading performances. That's not offered.

The teachers union's pitch for transgendered curriculum material is remarkably revealing. First, it shows they are hopelessly parochial. They talk about diversity and inclusivity, but they will endorse only one (quite narrow) set of values in the schools. It also shows they're completely out of touch with their hugely diverse, increasingly immigrant, increasingly conservative constituency.

Do Muslim parents in Scarborough really want their school to teach their nine-year-olds the difference between transsexual and transgendered? And by the way, whatever happened to arithmetic?

Judging by the union's Web site, the most pressing issues in the elementary schools today are homophobia and racism. It offers comprehensive teaching resources on both these subjects. The Challenging Homophobia resource guide says, "Use inclusive language: words like 'partner' instead of 'wife' or 'husband.' " We are assured that even the teachers guide for math (which is sorely needed, since many teachers are not that good at math themselves) "highlights the importance of equity and inclusivity in teaching practices."

Ontario's elementary schools are programmed to turn out really superb peer-counsellors. No kids anywhere in the world can match our kids in conflict-resolution techniques, or journal-keeping, or non-violence, or respect for those who are different from themselves.

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