I’ve been blog-free for the past couple weeks as I’ve been working on a presentation for the Manitoba Education Research Network regarding integrating ecological consciousness into the senior years pre-calculus curriculum. When/If I get around to publishing a paper on that matter (and the results are striking and exciting), I’ll be sure to post that. Briefly, complexity is something that is tied to affective responses, and the phobia of the complex can inhibit understanding. Okay, it’ll make more sense with examples.
Now that I’m catching up on my reading and assignments, I was given an article from 2006 by Dennis Owens from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and here’s my response:
“Public school boards provide mixed results in spite of constantly rising budgets because they are organized as cost-plus monopolies. It’s far easier to slap up mill rates than manage assets well, trim overheads or adopt practices that reward efficiency. Another victim is the concept of equity, with more efficient divisions spending far less than the bloated beasts like the Winnipeg School Division.” – Dennis Owens
I could write a thesis on the above stupidity. I cannot imagine that Owens has the slightest clue about educational administration, the Winnipeg School Division, or the true nature of schooling in New Zealand (he cites that system as a good example since he doesn’t have a clue), but he certainly adheres to a strict ideology – or perhaps what Foucault would mockingly call “science”. Michel Foucault, in his lectures at the College de France, characterizes such ideological systems – like Marxism or psychoanalysis – as “sciences” in the sense that they attempt all-encompassing totalitarian control, imposing a global theory on all local situations. That being said, Foucault does not see such ideological systems – such as that advocated by the Frontier Center for Public Policy – as being entirely useless, but only useful “tools” within “local” contexts, only “when the theoretical unity of their discourse is […] suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalised.”
In the above quote, Owens makes no attempt to localize his criticism, preferring only to speak in broad generalities and to ignore the particularities of the Winnipeg School Division. Further, he manages to make his argument in a space entirely devoid of facts, statistics, and specific evidence – the hallmark of ideological blindness. He is, as Foucault would say, a caricature. Given the length of this reflection, I will only examine some assumptions briefly and point to ways in which Owens criticism has failed in each case.
First, let us begin with the notion of “mixed results in spite of constantly rising budgets”. On what basis are we to assess the results of the work of a school division? On failure rates? On grades? On successful completion of high school? On standardized tests alone? On standardized tests relative to socio-economic factors? Owens does not say. But, earlier, he does mention that the measures of the Canadian Test of Basic Skills “indicates that student performance has slipped by at least one grade level over the last generation”, and claims that “constant testing” is the way to maintain accountability. Further, he notes that costs have tripled in the same period. So, taking one standardized test and dividing it by the money spent gives us “mixed results”. What a pathetic analysis! The “tripling”, if we assume one generation is 25 years, implies that costs have gone up by 4.5% per year. This is hardly inconsistent with the inflation rates from 1981 to 2006. Anyone claiming to be an economist who throws such un-adjusted numbers around should not be trusted. So much for the denominator. In the numerator, we have standardized testing. Owens no doubt is a product of a system of thought that believes in “standards”, and what Taylor proudly called “scientific management.” He is clearly of the opinion that the only value in human growth, learning, understanding, and development is that which can be measured quantifiably and rewarded through token economy. As a mathematician, I would never claim that the sum total of education and experience can be turned into a number. Anyone making such a claim would be speaking from an ideologically distorted point of view that sees children as slaves to a system – future consumers, not free people.
“It’s far easier to slap up mill rates than manage assets well, trim overheads or adopt practices that reward efficiency.” If ever there was a poster child for tautology, this would be it. To claim that managers are not under constant pressure to trim budgets and work “efficiently” and that there is no accountability is to fail to understand the administrative system and, far more importantly, to analyse the actual practices of school division administrators. However, I wish to side-track myself on the notion of efficiency. What is efficiency in terms of education? Is it more efficient to hold Calculus in a lecture hall of 400 students than in 10 classrooms of 40? Owens would no doubt support the former, because his value and measure of efficiency has little to do with learning outcomes and much more to do with people as cattle.
Finally, the most important point to be made is regarding the “bloated beast” that Owens claims is the Winnipeg School Division. Is every division to be measured by cost-per-student? Are there no particularities of local situations which inhibit such broad-based comparisons? Surely an expert on education in Manitoba should be aware of the local situation in the Winnipeg School Division – that many of its students require lunch programs, that many of its students are from refugee and EAL backgrounds and thus require enormous additional programming, that its schools need to and are asked to do so much more in order to raise educated, contributing members to society. However, Owens seems entirely unaware of the local particularities, and is thus a slave to ideology – a dangerous caricature of right-wing think-tanks, who can offer much in the way of reasoned criticism.
But, why does his voice resonate? I suspect that we – humanity – are susceptible to totalitarian and utopian systems precisely because they offer security against complexity. However, I would point back to Foucault, who said that the abandonment of these regimes need “not mean soft eclecticism, opportunism, or openness to any old theoretical undertaking,” but, “that the essentially local character of the critique in fact indicates something resembling a sort of autonomous and noncentralized theoretical production, or in other words a theoretical production that does not need a visa from some common regime to establish its validity.” Thus, on questions of whether or not we need school boards or whether our schools are succeeding, or whether our funding level is justified, we need to turn to the local community for the answers and the theoretical underpinnings – not to totalitarian, ideological approaches.
 Foucault, Michel (2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976. New York: Picador. Translated by D. Macey. See January 7th lecture for further discussion. It is funny that Foucault rejected the label of postmodernism in light of the content of this lecture.