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Life is more than math: Don't narrow our public education curriculum

Photo: Denis Mihailov/flickr

This blog is the first in CCPA-NS' new series called "Progressive Voices on Public Education in Nova Scotia." With an education review underway in the province and expected to table a report in the fall, it is timely to spark discussion and debate on how to strengthen our public education system and indeed, reclaim our public schools for active citizenship, critical thinking, and creating safe, healthy, vibrant, diverse communities. This is also a call-out to anybody who might want to contribute to the series, get in touch: ccpans@policyalternatives.ca

What is our public education system for? To judge by much of the talk coming from politicians and business leaders, education is purely a matter of preparing students to be workers in a vaguely defined "new economy."

Certainly, students need to be able to survive economically in the world. But public education is about much more than narrow job-skills training: it's about teaching our kids how to create and sustain a healthy, engaged society.

This isn't always reflected in the way we prioritize certain subjects in school.

Take the example of math. A staple of the curriculum since the dawn of schooling, it's often perceived as the most serious and rigorous of subjects. Why? Because it's seen as the key to gainful employment, especially in higher-paid fields. Love it or hate it, many students are ingrained from a young age with the idea that their financial future depends on their ability to solve quadratic equations or prove the Pythagorean theorem.

I have nothing against math; in fact, it was one of my majors. But there are some problems here. One is that only a small percentage of jobs actually use anything beyond junior high math -- about a fifth, according to a recent Northeastern University study.

Furthermore, jobs aside, is the material learned in a high school math class necessarily that much more important in life than, say, learning about one's health, macroeconomics, a second language, or Canada's treaty obligations with First Nations?

These are not just philosophical questions. In the U.S., a decade of education policies focusing on "career and college-readiness" -- Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, and Obama's Race to the Top and more recent Common Core State Standards -- have resulted in an obsessive overemphasis on standardized test scores and narrowing of the curriculum.

As teachers spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test, subject matter seen as extraneous, i.e. anything not easily testable or immediately relatable to a job, is pushed to the margins.

At the global level, nearly 1,500 teachers and professors have signed an open letter to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development decrying the role PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests are having in narrowing the way we think about education around the world. A recent issue of CCPA's Our Schools, Ourselves looks at who and what is left out of a narrow, outcomes-focused vision of education, and examines socioeconomic indicators that are often left out of the increasingly standards-based education debates.

In theory, we tell ourselves we want a rich, varied curriculum. But in practice, too many media stories about the health of our education system focus on students' performance on standardized assessments in basic math and literacy. Any slipping in the rankings sets off a kind of moral panic and further over-focus on these subjects, often framed as necessary in order for the nation (or province, or neighbourhood) to "compete" with everyone else.

Do we need an economy that provides a decent quality of life for all its citizens, and an education system that can lead us there? Sure. However, there are countless other outcomes we should be seeking from our education system. For example:

Are our kids learning enough about the challenges facing our natural environment, especially climate change, and the powerful political inertia that prevents meaningful action to address them?

Are they learning not just how to produce wealth for themselves, but how to ensure society's wealth does not continue to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?

Are they learning enough about history, systems of government, law and economics, in order to stem the steady decline in political participation in our society?

Are they learning, through practice, the importance of personal and community health, including regular physical activity, proper nutrition and healthy relationships? Are they learning to cope with stress, anxiety and depression, and about the social determinants of health?

Are they learning to counter the ongoing effects of racism and colonialism, which continue to marginalize entire populations in our society?

Are they learning the importance of art in society, for both our individual and collective well-being?

Many educators in our province are doing great work on these topics and others, helping us live up to the kinds of values that guide us in our collective quest to be a "good" society: justice, sustainability, equality, democracy.

In an education system overly focused on perceived short-term economic needs, that work gets pushed to the margins of the curriculum. As part of the current education review, let's make sure our public schools help to create the kind of society we want to live in for decades to come.

Ben Sichel is a high school teacher in Dartmouth, N.S. and a strong advocate for public education. He is the author of the P-12 education sections for the 2013 and 2014 CCPA-NS Alternative provincial budgets and blogs on education and related issues at noneedtoraiseyourhand.wordpress.com

Photo: Denis Mihailov/flickr

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