An Excerpt from Grant Frost’s Attack on Nova Scotia Schools
How to defend public education
In this excerpt from Grant Frost’s The Attack on Nova Scotia Schools, the author considers means of protecting public schools from political austerity and corporate-minded, neoliberal think tanks—meaning ones that prefer privatization, decreasingly democratic school systems and the reduction of public services in general.
Frost makes the case that public schools should be championed—by parents, teachers, unions and especially governments—for their many successes, the way a private company champions sneakers or SUVs. Grant believes that making the merits of a public system clearer paves the way for a steady, collectivist approach to education, rather than constant reform. In this way, he argues, we can build a public-school system that endows children with the critical thinking skills necessary to build more resilient, sustainable and just societies.
Authors Maude Barlow and Heather-Jane Robertson reported that even in 1991 teachers were among the least likely groups to be quoted in stories about the education system, and little has changed since that time. Some of the responsibility for this missing voice must be laid at the feet of the union, which has often discouraged teachers from speaking directly to the media.
The absence of teachers willing to speak on the subject of education should not, however, give a free pass to the press to arbitrarily assign expertise to consultants who work outside the system. Given the current state of the news media, journalists have a greater responsibility than ever to examine the source of their information. Although finding a spokesperson from AIMS [the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies] to weigh in on the subject of public education may prove expedient, doing so without exploring the motivation behind the views, or perhaps examining the accuracy of their claims, is irresponsible. There remains a certain authority in stories that come from mainstream media outlets in Canada. As a result, the capacity they have to do lasting damage by repeating poorly researched, and sometimes completely inaccurate, claims of school failure is considerable.
Finally, when it comes to the preservation of public education, the organization with the greatest capacity for impact is, by far, our government. Governments do not spend much time or money promoting the system they themselves have built.
It would be easy to blame this silence on the fact that our current government is decidedly neoliberal. But successive governments in Nova Scotia have fallen victim to the same line of thinking. Even when the ruling party was not dominated by neoliberal discourse, there was little effort to promote or celebrate public education.
If this were a private entity, they would be trumpeting this system to the skies. They would be celebrating their own innovations, positioning themselves as a mover and a shaker, singing the praises of their hard-working and innovative workforce. All this would be done with an eye to drawing consumers to the product. This could allow jurisdictions like ours to become veritable education destinations. Yet, from governments across the country, we hear crickets.
Instead of looking at ways of promoting the system, politicians have, time and again, used education as a political tool, painting their all-too-familiar reforms as a way of repairing the perceived failures of previous governments. When the status quo is called into question, it is much easier to offer alternatives than to defend the current model. Unfortunately for public education, often the only alternative models readily available are those that are firmly rooted in neoliberal soil.
Furthermore, addressing the underlying issues of a system such as education is not only more difficult, but more time consuming and expensive than offering an alternative to the status quo. If standardized tests results are not up to snuff, it is far easier for governments to, say, increase accountability measures for teachers than it is to address underlying issues such as child poverty or racial inequality.
Although Nova Scotia is a relatively small province, when it comes to education, we punch well above our weight. It is here that our most valuable resource lies. Not in our oceans. Not in our forests. Not in our blueberry fields or in our apple orchards. It lies within our classrooms. We have the educational expertise and the infrastructure. It is high time we stopped being a model of educational reformism gone awry and time we started to recognize and promote ourselves as what we long have been: a model of educational excellence.
I can’t help but wonder how much further ahead we would be as a province if twenty-five years ago we had committed to a collectivist vision of public education as opposed to pursuing the neoliberal one. If all the money and time spent on such endeavours as Horizons, the Action Plan and the Glaze report had gone into promoting and enhancing what we were doing well, as opposed to what the neoliberals wanted us to believe we were doing poorly, would we still be languishing as one of Canada’s “have-not” provinces?
There is nothing but a lack of political will stopping us from becoming another Finland: a region with an education system that others, indeed entire countries, aspire to. But for that to happen, all of us, union, government, media and the public, both individually and collectively, must accept one single, solitary truth.
Our schools are not underperforming. They are under attack.
And unless we stop placidly accepting the messaging of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt being advanced by the neoliberals, control of one of the last, most fundamental public entities in our possession will slip, quietly and forever, away from our collective grasp.
—Grant Frost is a teacher, speaker and union activist who has written several articles on public education in Nova Scotia and beyond. He was the host of a local cable television show Education East until 2018. He is a contributing writer for The Chronicle Herald and blogs at frostededucation.com.