The future of public education is the future of Canada
by Annie Kidder
Funders often ask, “What’s your burning platform?” “What makes this work necessary or urgent, and why should we fund it?”
Right now, it feels as if the world itself is the burning platform – literally and figuratively.
We have increasingly angry forms of populism that are dividing us and threatening our democracies.
We have millions of people displaced by war, terrorism, oppression or deprivation – or a horrible combination of all of those things.
Climate change is a global threat that we seem to be unwilling to buckle down and do something about.
Young people are increasingly likely to struggle with mental illness, and report high levels of anxiety about the future.
We have intractable, or even growing gaps: between rich and poor, between rural and urban communities, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and between the privileged and those who feel left out.
And maybe most worrying of all, is the idea that we are living in a “post-truth” era – where evidence, facts, science, and even honesty are not things we can count on.
At this point, we have two choices: we can hide and hope it all goes away (or just focus on making sure things are okay for ourselves and our families); or we can look for the places where we can make real change – look upstream.
Despite the mess we’re in, there is hope.
And that hope lies in public education.
But I want to be clear: it’s not that “the children” are our hope – as if we can just turn it over to them and hope they can somehow fix the mess we’ve created.
It’s in the public education system itself where hope lies – because it’s a system that we can collectively work on and intentionally change, and because it is only through systemic change that we can ensure that young people are gaining the skills and competencies they will need for the future.
If our publicly funded schools prepare our students to play a real role in the world – no matter who they are or what their background…
If we teach students to imagine, innovate, adapt, think and continue to learn…
If we can begin to assume of our public education system that it will foster students – whether they want to be bricklayers, dentists or chefs – who have the capacity and sense of agency to have an impact on the world around them; who are able to vote with a deep understanding of the issues; who know how to collaborate, and how to take care of their mental and physical health; who can use innovative approaches to solve complex problems; who feel a sense of connectedness, with each other and with the world around them; who have empathy; who can take the knowledge they’ve gained in one area and apply it to another; and, most importantly, who know the difference between opinion and evidence…
If we can do that, then there’s hope.
These are the new basics.
Yes, reading, writing, and math are vital skills, but these broader, human, transferable skills and competencies last forever, cross all curriculum, and are the true predictors of success in the long term.
It is time to take a deep look at how the education system needs to evolve, so that it is providing our communities, our province, and our country with the citizenry we need – to solve both local and global challenges.
However, we can’t simply ask the education system to do more.
We have to figure out: What resources are necessary to build these vital skills and competencies? How can we build links across systems to support broader learning? What do teachers and school boards need to support them in this work? How can we begin to look at vital “inputs” in education, as well as “outcomes?”
It is going to take extensive cross-sector dialogue, a willingness to look at emerging evidence, and an appetite for system change.
Public education in Canada is pretty good right now, but “pretty good” is not enough if we want to build a better future, both for our young people and for Canada.
Why public education?
At our annual conference, we asked participants and speakers to answer the question "Why public education?"
Here is what they had to say.
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