It’s easy to criticize governments for their education reform efforts–none ever seem to work.   Giving constructive advice on reform, however, is not so easy; besides, it usually falls on deaf ears, anyway.

In all fairness, governments try to improve education. They work against tremendous odds and extreme pressures from special interest groups. There simply is no pleasing everybody all the time.  Unfortunately, more often than not, reforms wind up ineffective, misapplied, and more detrimental than beneficial.  This inevitably happens because governments succumb to political pressures and get bushwhacked and outgunned by the imperious  “progressive” education establishment.

Failing to address root-problems in education is a cardinal mistake governments make over and over again.  Instead of identifying the problem and setting out to fix it, governments tend to make adjustments to the “system”;  they modify procedures, establish commissions, programs and committees; they fund new initiatives and add to the already burgeoning bureaucracy. And all the while, the real problem of teaching and learning festers on, unattended.

Public education’s prime objective must be to teach students a foundation of academic knowledge that will enable them to become gainfully employed or go on to higher learning.   Everyone can agree that, by-and-large, this transfer of academic knowledge takes place between teacher and student. And it is common knowledge that our “progressive” educators, right across North America, are not achieving these goals. That’s why public education has come under fire in the first place, and why policymakers strive to make changes. However, current approaches to education reform make as much sense as visiting the sweets confectioner for a tooth ache, or consulting a proctologist for a facelift.

Instead of making changes to teacher training and teaching methods (which forms the essence of teaching and learning), reformers set out to make system changes that are unrelated to the interaction between teacher and student. When an airline company has technical problems with an aircraft’s undercarriage, it doesn’t revise its check-in procedures, it takes the problem to engineering.  If a baseball team is in a hitting slump, the manager doesn’t issue new gloves, he orders more batting practice.  Yet when our public education system, clearly, has problems with teaching and learning, reformers never really take a critical look at how teachers are teaching and why children aren’t learning.  Instead, they propose to make changes within the system to improve working conditions, introduce policies to make school  more fun and exciting, and they create a larger slush fund for remedial classes.

When George Bush took office, parents across the land looked forward to his much publicized education reforms. After severe political pressure and many compromises, his vaunted reforms seem to be going the way of all well-intentioned reform undertakings–out the window.

The education reform bill, which started out as President Bush's package, has now left the President behind.  The new version looks more like a Teddy Kennedy Bill.  The Department of Education in Washington will increase its control over local schools and force Outcome-Based Education on every classroom.  And the bill reaffirms the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This means that states will be tied to federal content standards such as Goals 2000 and School-to-Work, if they expect to partake in federal funds.

Genuine reformers believe the President’s bill has become "a facade underwritten by billions in new spending."  And even some Democrats admit that the American public will only get “a status quo bill at the end of the day."  Apparently such is the fate of most reform bills. In the end, of course, it will have nothing to do with teaching and learning.

Things are no better in Canada.  The Conservative Government in Ontario has struggled long and hard to make meaningful reforms to public education. So far, it has had little effect on teaching and learning.  Pressure has been put on policymakers to improve working conditions, increase spending and give local schools more autonomy. Parent groups have advocated more choice of schools through voucher and charter programs;  the education bureaucrats and teachers’ unions are clamoring for more funding and new high-tech resources.

During a recent budget speech, the Ontario Government announced that it is prepared to support wider choice of schools through a graduated tax-credit scheme to augment tuition fees at private schools.  Although heralded as a reform milestone by the “choice” advocates, the news has been condemned as treason against public education by the political opposition, unions and education bureaucrats.  The Conservative Ontario Government has always said it supported public education and had no intention of introducing voucher or charter schools and now the opposition has twisted  this reform initiative into a direct breach of promise.

It is, perhaps, irreverent to look a gift-horse in the mouth. However, at the risk of appearing to be an ingrate, it is interesting to examine the historical events leading up to the Ontario Government’s announcement to support school choice.

Back in 1999 and early 2000 the Ontario government got involved in a dispute with the federal government over a decision made by the UN Human Rights Committee.  That committee ruled that Ontario’s support of Catholic schools to the exclusion of other religious schools was discriminatory.  The UN ruling resulted from a complaint lodged in 1996 by Toronto's Arieh  Waldman, who had allegedly spent $95,000 educating his sons at Jewish day schools. Premier Harris said the province had a constitutional obligation to support the Catholic and public school systems–period. And the Premier made it clear that the federal government had no jurisdiction over provincial education affairs. In other words, he told the federal government and the UN to go take a hike.

Apparently, Ontario’s attitude toward the ruling of that almighty establishment was an embarrassment to the federal government. When Premier Harris wouldn’t budge on the issue, Prime Minister Chretien uttered some veiled threats through the side of his mouth by offhandedly mentioning something about withholding education transfer payments to uncooperative provinces.

Some believe that UN political pressure got to Premier Harris and his Ontario government. Others think he simply had a change of heart about funding private schools.  Anyway, what right does the United Nations have to interfere in Canadian provincial educational business.

Evidently, the UN has made everything in Canada its business.  Not only has the UN got its hooks into Canadian affairs through their Human Rights Committee, but they hold sway over what is taught in every province across Canada through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a nasty little document Canada signed without giving it a second thought back in 1991. The  Convention or its follow-up directives stipulate, in part, that–
--Canada  must report annual progress on compliance of its schools with the Convention to a U.N. committee of ten (report to be submitted every 5 years).
--Curriculum changes in all schools shall conform to the Convention.
--Teaching methods shall reflect the “Spirit and Philosophy” of the Convention.

Now, those are facts, not fiction. Doubters can look it up.

Sounds like parents, schools, provincial ministries of education, and the federal government have no real say anymore about what goes on in local Canadian schools. Apparently, in the final analysis it’s all in the hands of the United Nations.  Now, that’s a depressing thought.

In any event, the promise of partial support for school choice through a tax credit will not be a panacea, as many elated parents envision.  More money thrown at public education or more choice in schools will not guarantee better teaching and learning.  Revamping teacher training programs and methods of teaching in our public schools (UN permitting)  is the only guarantee for higher student achievement.

We know from empirical evidence that Direct Instruction teaching techniques work best.  The problem is getting the reformers to overcome the political pressures, so they can focus on implementing this successful teaching method.

Jann Flury