The Reality of Public Education in the 21st Century

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

For a period of 20 years, beginning in the early 1970s and into the 1990s, public education in Canada proceeded in many diverse directions with what appeared to be a variety of goals.

This made it increasingly difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of schools, nor was it a priority of either government or the public to assess school effectiveness during this era. The clear purpose of public education appeared to be clouded, partially due to government ideology, which often translated into policies and programs designed to use the schools to address social issues rather than improve the education of the students who occupied the classrooms.

Since the mid 1990s, however, we have begun to witness a change in the direction of education as a result of the implementation of educational reform initiatives which are clearly based on standards, accountability and student achievement. Consequently, it is much easier to define the purpose of public education and evaluate school effectiveness today than it was ten years ago.

Although education is a provincial responsibility, national trends are emerging. Some of these trends are province-wide testing and outcome-based education, a reduction in the number of school boards or outright elimination of them, restructuring of teacher education and certification, establishment of school advisory councils, and a movement towards charter schools, with an increasing anticipation of policies ultimately leading to the privatization of schools.

New Directions, the blueprint for educational reform in the province of Manitoba, was introduced, in 1994, by the previous government, and specifically addresses essential learning, standards and evaluation, parental and community involvement, and distance education and technology.
The majority of these reform initiatives were implemented prior to the change in government in 1999, and, interestingly, the current government has only made minor changes to them, primarily in the area of provincial standards tests. This may be in response to the reality that educational reform in Manitoba is the result of the larger educational reform movement which is occurring throughout North America and that this reform is being driven by forces outside the education system. These forces include globalization, changes in the nature of work, movement towards a knowledge-based economy and the rapidly increasing pace of technological change.

These trends are also impacting on the structure of organizations, which are being forced to streamline for quick response. As more knowledge is being generated faster than ever before, bureaucracies are diminishing, leaders are being forced to take risks and decentralization is occurring within organizations as they begin to dismantle hierarchical management structures and replace them with flat organizational systems designed to empower employees in decision making and increase emphasis on teamwork. Today, the same economic and cultural forces that are transforming Canada are directly affecting our education system.

In fact, the reform taking place in the education system is common to any large system or organization which is being directly affected by rapid and constant change.

The rapid development of technology has also created an impetus for public schools to form relationships with businesses. Government simply cannot afford to fund schools adequately for the purchase, service and replacement of changing technology, but a viable solution can be found in facilitating partnerships between educational institutions and the business sector. This reality will create massive opportunities for increased community and business partnerships with public education institutions. Inevitably, increased demand for taxpayer money to fund public education will promote a restructuring of the system to make government more of a facilitator and less of a controller.

The impact of these forces on the education system will only strengthen it.

Through business-education partnerships, increased technology usage and a concentration on learning skills, the public education system is adapting to the demands of a rapidly changing workforce. Schools are beginning to move beyond their previously defined boundaries. This is resulting in greater community involvement, such as advisory councils on school leadership and schools offering collaborative programs with business and community service agencies. Progressive educators are beginning to examine partnership possibilities to facilitate student transition from high school to work and to post secondary programming. There is a new emphasis on education as a continuum rather than a series of segments.

Major demographic, economic and social forces are shaping the future. Quality education is directly linked to economic development. In order to meet the emerging challenges, our education system must develop and deliver programs that will produce enterprising and self-reliant individuals who will spark innovation in a world where knowledge and information are of high value and time is increasingly limited.

In formulating decisions relating to restructuring the education system, it is critical that government does so within the framework of educational reality rather than political reality. The status quo is no longer an option in preparing for the 21st century


William Bumstead recently retired as an educational adminstrator, wherein he was involved in developing many partnerships between public education and business, and he is now involved in business and education management consulting.