Complexity and Schooling

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.”[1]


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.

[1] 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.


7 responses to “Complexity and Schooling

  1. Finally, my hundredth post! One should not go a hundred posts without being sure to cite Foucault. I will try to keep that in mind for the next hundred.

  2. Those Frontier Centre op eds that appear in the Freep from time to time are always so predictably ideological that they’re laughable. In their view, the consistent answer to every one of society’s woes lies in privatizing and deregulating. Any problem – always the same remedy. They’re downright fanatical!

    BTW, congrats on your hundredth post!

  3. Hi PT,

    I agree. I often think of them as the Marxists of the 21st century to the extent that they cannot see beyond their ideological blinders and believe that every situation must bend to very specific guidelines which they control and which flow from authoritative “science” of economics.

  4. Great post…a thought or two;

    School boards being proactive to their own pecularities and “we need to turn to the local community for the answers and the theoretical underpinnings” is great theory, but don’t ask anyone in Garden Valley…(the morning prayer issue)…

    The Winnpeg School Board is bloated though, my sister works there amongst many troubled youth and the red tape is infuriating. There are so much liability built into the system that some people are afraid to make a difference.

    And don;t forget the tax funding. If you follow the localized “theoretical production that does not need a visa from some common regime to establish its validity”, you risk having taxpayers who need less in their own school divisions subsidizings those in others…that may not sit well with many. If i fail a course in Winkler that I would have passed at Sisler….

    And let’s face it, Foucault’s reasoning is sound, but a school board is basically a political structure in Winnipeg, with candidates usually holding memberships in a political party and receiving support behind the scenes. They may not see the need for Foucault’s approach if it limits their political future.

  5. Thanks for the response, Chris.

    The liability concerns of the Winnipeg School Division are real, but are also external to their planning. They are subjected to the laws of the land, civil and criminal, for good or bad. So, the “red tape” reegarding liability issues is a consequence of systems beyond their immediate control. Regarding “bloated” status for WSD, I do not agree. In 2007-2008, WSD spent $9474/student compared to the provincial average of $9401/student. That puts them less than 1% higher than average in terms of spending, despite the additional needs.

    Regarding tax transfers between divisions, that is already the case in Manitoba, in a sense. The province funds school divisions differently, depending partially on their tax base. The result is not equal, but does mean that taxes flow from affluent to poorer areas already. So, for example, Seven Oaks receives much more provincial money than Pembina Trails despite the fact that citizens of PT pay more in taxes.

    Certainly its true that the Garden Valley case does present a challenge to my stance, as does the school out East that (temporarily) banned O Canada. However, I am willing to live with diversity to a point and give away some control in a decentralized structure to local communities with their own particularities, needs, and values. That being said, there isn’t a safe and sound rule on how to avoid centralized rules!

  6. I agree with the liability concerns being external to a school board’s planning, but it becomes a factor nonetheless when conducting any discussion for the future…”Can we do this?” “I dunno, better check with the lawyers”…this really stifles most creative thinking in the bud, as too many people accept that change is just to difficult to implement, no matter the benefit.

    I apologize for the blanket statement about “bloated”…I believe I was just soaking up the reputation rather than any facts…one thing though: is over $9400/student still too much in any division? What exacxtly is the bang for the buck? might be a better question than where does all the money go?….

    Full agreed on your last paragraph. Some centralized rules are needed, and there will always be disputes over their local effect.


  7. Actually, Chris, the $9400 is far less than the amount spent per student at, say, the University of Manitoba on undergrad-related matters. And considering the average class size in elementary, junior high, and senior high – that’s not bad. Considering that university students are only in classes for 15 hours per week, that’s incredible. I could go on. The comparison suggests that we do education on the cheap relative to other institutions.

    That said, there is a further point to be made, which John Dewey would have asserted regarding Democracy and Education, and the nature of freedom. That point being that education alone can give individuals freedom to rise above the forces that control them. Further, the economics of education means that failure to educate is nearly a guarunteed condemnation of a child to servitude. So, I would argue that the first obligation of the community to children is to give them an education. Taxation should be secondary to the decision making, not because it isn’t important, but because it is less important than education. Or, so I would argue. But, I’m biased.

    For bang-for-buck: Go here. PISA ranks Canada near the top in almost every category in Education in the OECD. Quick question: Is Manitoba above the Canadian average? I can’t find the link right now, but the answer is yes. If we were our own country, Manitoba would be the world leader in science and math education. And, we were listed in the category of “countries that spent less” on education – we spend far less than the US, but pay our teachers better.

    We get incredible bang for less buck here. Hurray for us.

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