Review: Schooling

Canada, unlike Zimbabwe, has no federal department of education, to which Professor Jennifer Wallner of the University of Ottawa comments: And your point is – ?

Parliament regulates the minutiae of labels on fertilizer bags; the price of mozzarella; the CDs they play at Radio CJLR in Meadow Lake, Sask. Yet in 152 years legislators have never set any federal standards on basic elementary and secondary education. Critics lament the fact. Professor Wallner argues this does not mean standards don’t exist.

“Provinces can work together,” Wallner writes; “When we compare the provincial education systems to one another, all ten show remarkably strong similarities in investments, achievements and substantive policies.”

Learning To School delves into the genius of the federation through the prism of schooling. The conclusion is plain: Canadian education standards do just fine in Parliament’s absence, and provinces have been leaders in the classroom since the 19th century.

Learning To School does not varnish the knotholes in the system. True, Canada spends less on education as a percentage of GDP than Finland, Belgium or New Zealand. True, the ratio of teachers to students is lower here than in just about every industrialized country except Korea, Mexico and Turkey. Yes, the provincial ratio of spending per student varies as much as 35 percent, from a low of $6,200 a year in Prince Edward Island to a high of $8,400 in Manitoba – though Wallner notes this is improving all the time. In 1945 the gap was more than 200 percent; in 1900 it was twice as bad, when British Columbia outspent Québec by a ratio of 5 to 1.

For all these flaws Learning To School concludes Canadians do not fare too badly: “While Canada seems to invest slightly less in education than other advanced industrial nations, its educational attainments are strong, with high marks on international tests and elevated completion rates in secondary and tertiary education. Without a central authority, moreover, the Canadian provinces support their respective elementary and secondary systems with similar levels of investment.”

How is this possible? Simple, says Wallner: teachers and parents. “Teachers, for example, have similar interests with regards to salaries, benefits and professional working conditions regardless of where they live,” resulting in de facto standards on curricula, class sizes and other factors. And parents from coast to coast “consistently demand and expect high-quality education programming from their respective provincial governments,” Learning To School concludes.

Just as provinces have pretty much the same minimum wage, the same highway speed limits, the same regulations on landfilling, so provinces have adopted comparable standards on elementary and secondary schooling. Their record is impressive.

Nova Scotia created the first effective department of education in 1864 with all others following, though Québec took nearly a century. Public school curricula have been standardized since 1910; British Columbia created the first funding pool between rich and poor districts in 1933; Alberta established the first three-year university degree program in education in 1942.

Learning To School turns conventional wisdom on its head. Without any federal leadership or Act of Parliament, Canadians built a modern, effective school system – even without a Zimbabwean Ministry of Education.

By Holly Doan

Learning To School: Federalism And Public Schooling In Canada, by Jennifer Wallner; University of Toronto Press; 432 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-15892; $37.95

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