Monday, 20 January 2014

Why I Left the Public School System

By Marie Lardino, B.Ed, M.Ed
Retired Principal/Founder
Voice Integrative School

Photo: Retrieved from
     I left the Ontario public school system in 2000 to found Voice Intermediate School, which, at that time, began as a class of fourteen grade 7 students.  In 1998, our newly elected Conservative Government implemented a complete overhaul of our education system. It introduced standardized testing, a province-wide common curriculum, and a voluminous set of learning outcomes.
 Given that teachers hadn’t had the appropriate training to respond to this seemingly “urgent” call for accountability, I saw this reform as having serious implications on the emotional wellbeing of my students, and more specifically, my holistic pedagogy, which I viewed as working. So I became suspicious of the changes implemented by the Ontario government, and disillusioned with the public system. 
 Over the years I have observed the effect of Ontario’s education reform through various conditions - anxiety, stress, unhappiness, etc. – felt by many students entering my school from public classrooms. Thus soon enough, a trickle-down effect created by standardized testing and (more) stringent outcomes began to emerge. I observed that Ontario students started to display tension and a greater preoccupation with grades. Schools in Toronto started to acquire a greater or lesser value based on their overall results in EQAO tests (Education Quality Accountability). After-school learning centres opened up everywhere (and began to flourish) given that many parents – seemingly worried about their children’s inability to meet required standards - responded by blaming “average” competency on (possible) learning disabilities. This caused a large number of families to enroll their children in remedial academic programs. Many others responded by enrolling their children in private or independent schools (such as ours) that espoused a more innovative, less stressful teaching mandate. Other issues resulted from reform. Perhaps there will be opportunities for me to write about these later.
For now, I will add that I saw Ontario’s education reform as affecting university entrance requirements as well. Given this push to standardize achievement, multi- leveled competition took hold of our education system. The need to ensure that academic requirements were met on every level – from elementary to senior – led higher education institutions to start the process of accepting students with very high grades. 
 I hear constantly from parents who enrol their public school children at VIS, that Ontario’s education standards managed to accomplish regression in education more than improvement. I agree. I recall feeling pressured to teach to the test, compartmentalize the curriculum, and take on teacher-centered approaches. I worried about my students’ emotional wellbeing in relation to these new and demanding expectations.
Voice Intermediate School (now a grades 1-8 school with nearly one hundred students) soon to be Voice Integrative School, was founded due to my disillusionment with standardization, which, in my view, undermines the goals of a compassionate, holistic education. Although I see the value of a common curriculum, practical experience tells me that a focus on standards has negative implications on “meaningful” learning.
 At VIS we choose to teach “through” the content set out by the new Ontario curriculum and employ formal and informal evaluation strategies. And although we are not required by the Ontario Ministry of Education to implement standardized tests, our students thrive academically. More important, they leave VIS with an abundance of "higher order skills" (Pike and Selby, 1988). Then they succeed in other institutions, whether public or private. And because in our case, the stressful aspects of standardized testing have been removed, we get to pay attention to our students’ needs, rather than place focus on the system’s needs.
 During my pursuit of a master in education at OISE/UT, I had the great privilege of working with Dr. Selby and Dr. Pike. In the 1990's global education became a very worthy experiment, and the purpose behind the creation of The Global Education Institute at OISE. The institute has since been dismantled. However, I recall my relationship with Dr. Selby and Dr. Pike as being about a mutual respect. I highly respected their theory of global education, and felt that they respected my professional practice and intrinsic knowledge. They are not the first life-changing mentors I have encountered throughout my life. However, they gave me the tools to translate what I thought I knew (and couldn’t yet describe), into a language that gave my vision of education, meaning. Not surprising, I called my school “VOICE”.
What I took from the public school system was valuable learning about the context of education - its complexities and its issues. Now, within the context of my school, having a “voice” implies the courage to take risks through feelings of safety and belonging. This notion applies to my teachers as well. I firmly believe that a good education -and good teaching - is a blend of many layers and interdependent factors. However, one thing seems certain. We learn and teach best in environments where feelings of belonging and safety are acknowledged, practiced and celebrated.

Pike, G., & Selby, D. (1988). Global teacher, global learner. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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