Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breaking Down 44: Part 2

Alright, Nation... we've talked about the first concept behind Bill 44, and it seems that the E.S. Nation is in general agreement with my take that:


It's 2009, and most of us have joined the vast majority of western liberal democracies in that belief.

The second, and more controversial of the concepts, is what we'll talk about today.


Now, this one is far more touchy than the first. A simpler solution to this conundrum would have been to present these 2 concepts in 2 different bills, however it's no secret that there is a very vocal minority in the PC Caucus, and in the province at large, that wanted absolutely NO space between Concept 1 and Concept 2: As soon as 1 was law, the 2nd had to be also.

Let's break this concept down into workable sub-concepts...

SUB-CONCEPT 1: Parents have the right to control the education of their children.

I say, "true". Before public education, the parental role in education was inextricable from the education itself: Mother and Father taught the child what s/he needed to know to survive in the world. If the child decided (or, sometimes, it was determined FOR the child) to go into a field that neither parent could offer an education in, the child would be "apprenticed" to someone who COULD provide that education. At any rate, the parent's right to control the education of their child was absolute.

Since the dawn of public education, this right has seen its scope limited. As class sizes grew, the parent's ability to sit down and discuss their own child's needs with the teacher was reduced; likewise with their ability to, in most cases, influence the curriculum - when your 4 children were in an 11-child, one-room school-house, your discussions with the teacher as to what was and was not appropriate for your children carried serious weight. When your child is one in a class of 25, in a school of 600, with regimented curriculum and standardized province-wide tests, then the teacher is somewhat more limited in how much they can change the lesson plan to accommodate the beliefs of your family.

Ultimately, the parent still has the choice to home school their child, enroll him/her in the public school system, enroll in a private, charter, or faith-based school... however, the lessons and core curriculum which the student is taught are determined by experts in order to ensure that all high school graduates, for example, can be assumed to have met the same basic threshold of applied learning.

So, while the parent can no longer control, to the same degree, what is taught in the public school classroom, it is ultimately their right to determine whether or not their child even ENTERS that classroom, or goes to a school or system more in keeping with their family's values and beliefs. Therefore, sub-concept 1 is, to my mind, truthful: Parents do have the right to control the education of their children.

SUB-CONCEPT 2: Children have the right to a full and balanced education.

We, as a society, have determined this to be true through our actions. The creation and public funding of an educational system which permits all children to attend, free of charge, is one of the greatest steps that any civilization can take to ensure its posterity. We in this country, as in many others, have created a system and embedded within that system a curriculum and series of standardized tests to ensure that the curriculum is being adhered to.

That curriculum is set by a central body, in our case Alberta Education, with the input of many highly-educated experts and after consultation with school councils - made up of teachers and parents - from across the province. The curriculum that the students are taught is intended to give them a foundation in logic, problem solving, analytical thought, critical thinking, and the ability to retain and use a base set of facts on a variety of subjects, from Language Arts and Mathematics to Science, History, Humanities, and Fine Arts.

The goal of this curriculum is to give students a well-rounded education. That is to say, to educate them as fully as possible in a group setting, in a number of different subjects as determined by the aforementioned experts and school councils.

Teaching a student is, at its core, simple: Introduce knowledge of which the student is not previously aware, discuss that knowledge, prove it to be factual through critical thinking, and test the student to determine if that knowledge was retained. Of course, there's MUCH more to being a teacher than just following those steps, but at its core, education boils down to those 4 steps. The KEY to the process, though, is the FIRST step: Introduce knowledge of which the student is not previously aware. Challenge the student's ignorance or pre-conception. Where we run into difficulty, and where our 2 sub-concepts collide, is at this point: Sometimes, the knowledge, or what we as a society have deemed "facts", bump up against what the student has been taught at home and brings into the classroom with them as a pre-conceived notion.

This is the system that we have created... a system that attempts to impart a societally-agreed-upon series of facts in a myriad of subjects, along with the ability to reason, critically think, and solve problems. Using this system as our barometer, then, we can determine that we do, in fact, believe sub-concept 2 to be correct: Children do have the right to a full and balanced education.


There's the rub... WHO decides what constitutes a "full and balanced education"? Society as a whole. The same society that, once, accepted that some people could be the legal property of others. Or that the Earth was the centre of the Solar System. Or, more recently, that a "person" was defined as "a human being who is not an Indian". These are all ideas that were taught as facts in school, once. Clearly, society's values, the values and beliefs and accepted facts of the majority, are not always right or in keeping with what a child is taught at home.

The rights of parents superseding the rights of their children is always a sticky subject... we accept as a society, for example, that the right of a mother to have control over her own body supersedes any rights that her unborn child (or "fetus", depending on your social slant) may have. But DO we? There are examples of alcoholic mothers who have the babies taken by the province immediately upon birth, for the welfare of the child. Recently, a judgement in Manitoba suggested that teaching racism at home was a form of child abuse. Parents have the right to determine what medical care their child receives - unless the child's life is in danger, in which case doctors are empowered to take whatever steps are necessary - even if those steps are against the faith and wishes of the child's family - to save his or her life. A family that refuses to allow a life-saving procedure on religious grounds can be charged with abuse, or negligence.

So, is the act of a parent denying their child access to the full Alberta Education curriculum a case of "child abuse"? Or is it simply a case of the parent exercising their right to determine what is best for their child?

The obvious elephant in the room in this whole debate is religion. As I've stated before, I'm not a person of faith. However, I *did* attend Catholic school, and in Calgary, that means taking a course entitled "Religious Studies" each and every year. In elementary school, this course was essentially catechism: "Here's what we believe. You should believe it, too". Most of the students were Catholics, from Catholic families. It wasn't a big deal. By the time I got to high school, however, the message had changed drastically... it became "Here's what other people believe, and here's why". There was no indoctrination, no condemnation of different beliefs, it was just... knowledge. I was learning about the faiths of my neighbours and friends - they weren't being condemned or promoted, they were simply being discussed. As a result of that class, I grew in my understanding of others, how they thought, and why they thought that way. It was incredibly useful, and I would be a far poorer person for not having taken that course.

My parents *could* have pulled me from that course. They had the option, just as they had the option of pulling me from class when the curriculum called for the teaching of Human Sexuality. They didn't - in fact, in my 12 years of school, less than 5 students EVER left the class because of their parents' wishes regarding Sex Ed (and this was in the Catholic system, remember).

I *can*, however, see the side of parents who feel that their 8 or 9 year-old, who presumably they know better than anyone, is not ready for a discussion on human sexuality (the curriculum, I believe, starts discussing human reproduction in 3rd grade now). Those parents should, and do, have a recourse to pull their child out of the class when this discussion is happening. It's one thing to pull your 17 year-old out of Health class because a subject will be discussed that, statistically, he's probably already DOING, but quite another to be told by society that "your 9 year-old daughter NEEDS to know what a penis is for - and if you or your pastor isn't comfortable with that, then too bad". Dinner table conversations can clarify your position to your children, they can put today's school lesson in the context of your faith, but they can't erase the information that you feel your child wasn't ready to hear.

Discussion about religion is different, though. If a child will, as result of a simple classroom discussion, lose or act against their faith - then clearly the faith isn't being discussed and cultivated at home. Surely, faith that goes untested is not as strong as that which is tempered by being challenged. Remember the story of Job? (Hint: Check your Bible)

And let's not lose sight, by the way, of the fact that discussion ABOUT religion isn't even covered by Bill 44 - it's Religious Instruction, specifically. The classes I took in elementary - "write down 5 reasons you love Jesus" apply. The classes I took in high school - "what does it mean when someone says they are 'keeping kosher'?" - don't apply. And, as far as I know, they don't even teach those classes in the public system anyhow. Certainly not as mandatory courses, the way they are in the Catholic system.

My personal experiences and opinions notwithstanding, though, we as a society have a decision to make: Do we, as a society, get to decide what's best for kids regarding their education? Or do their parents? We've passed laws that say spanking a child is abuse. Whether or not the parent feels the child needs to be spanked is irrelevant: We have decided that a parent who strikes their child is wrong, and committing a crime.

Are we prepared, as a society, to say that a parent who causes their child to be excluded from a classroom discussion on human sexuality or explicitly religious instruction (catechism) that goes against the parent's, and presumably the child's, values system is similarly abusing their child?

If we accept that the child has a right to a full and balanced education, as I posited above, then it is indisputable that the child's rights are being denied in this regard. The fundamental question we have to ask, then, is this: Whose rights come first? The rights of parents, or the rights of the student?

They BOTH have rights. When those rights collide - as they do on this issue - which rights are we willing to sacrifice in deference to the other?


Anonymous said...

Best piece written on Bill 44 in the Blogosphere. Bar none.

opinionsmatter said...

A couple of points. First, school councils don't get to provide input on curriculum. As you point out, curriculum is written by Alberta Education and there is little or no consultation with parents on it before it's changed. Even after the fact, only the engaged parents who bother to ask the right questions will know it has been changed. (Recent cases, math and social studies. Up next year Phys-Ed. If you happened to see the AB education website before April 15, you could fill in a survey about it.)

Secondly, you point out that parents have the right make choices for their own kids. But you also point out the reality of 25 kids in a class and 600 kids in a school. The problem with Bill 44 is that it opens the door for one parent to impact learning for all kids.

For principals, managing the very diverse interests of parents in a school community is already a challenging task. Give the wing nuts another tool, and it WILL impact all students. It happens now. A parent doesn't like the drama production choice, or the book study or where the class goes for a field trip. They complain, very loudly and often the teacher or principal caves to the detriment of all students.

If this becomes a "right" codified in human rights legislation, there will be parents who will use it, and the result will be teachers and principals will be less likely to stick up for what they want to teach.

Parents get notification. They can pull their kids from sex ed or religion classes. It's working for parents. This is not needed. Bill 44 is bad, bad legislation.

Anonymous said...

Well I believe that a parent has the right to determine the educational content their child recieves BUT not on a day to day issue by issue basis. You are either in or out. What disturbs me most is society, (Canadians or Albertans)need to determine what education is required to maintain a Canadian identity and a common value system for all.

We do not need any more reasons for people to feel they can be exempt from being Canadian. We are watered down plenty already.

Anonymous said...

You say: that when classroom content focuses on e.g. "what does it mean when someone says they are 'keeping kosher'? - don't apply."

I don't think we know least not yet. Even amended, the bill is really broad.

Anonymous said...

ES, you write: "And let's not lose sight, by the way, of the fact that discussion ABOUT religion isn't even covered by Bill 44 - it's Religious Instruction, specifically."

You're on shaky ground here. The bill, even after the amendments reads: "A board...shall provide notice to a parent or guardian of a student where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instructions and exercises, prescribed under that Act INCLUDE SUBJECT MATTER THAT DEALS PRIMARILY AND EXPLICITLY WITH RELIGION, HUMAN SEXUALITY OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION."

A further amendment specifies that the notice requirement does not apply to "incidental or indirect" references. But it's pretty clear that the bill's application is broader than you think. The parental notification requirement may still apply to course content "about" religion - as long as it's primarily and explicitly about religion. It is certainly not limited to "religious instruction".

Enlightened Savage said...

There are some FANTASTIC comments, here... when I have a bit more time, I'll give them all the responses they deserve so that we can keep the conversation going.

Please keep in mind, though, that the intent of these blog postings(to this point) is to discuss not the Bill specifically or line-by-line, but rather the intent BEHIND the Bill. As you'll see in my next post, even with the Bill's intentions being something that we may all be able to agree on, I'm still not convinced this is the way to deal with the issue.

Anonymous said...

ES, I really appreciate that you're attempting to deal with the bill in its broadest context, sift through assumptions and implications. These are big, important and interesting issues. Lots has been written about them over the years, and you've made some interesting points. I even agree with a good part of what you've said, even if I'd frame it differently. I'm not sure all the circuits on your philosophical fuse-board are firing, but interesting nonetheless.

However, I'm not sure you can get to the "intent BEHIND the Bill" without actually looking at what the Bill says. Maybe you mean you want to focus the discussion on the broader issues raised by the bill. Fine, but that's different than the "intent behind the bill."

But you did make a specific claim about what the Bill covers and doesn't cover - and then you tell those commenting that they're somehow off topic. You made the claim.

Anonymous said...

All votes in the Legislature should be free, the fact that the Premier insists that this one vote is, represents why the system is broken.

Shame on anyone who supports any party that deny members free votes. Party Whips need to be abolished. It should be a criminal offense for anyone to force a member to vote a certain way.

kenchapman said...

As usual ES you prove again that you are wise beyond your 31 years. I don't dispute anything you say in this post. However, why do we need this Bill at all? Based on your experience in the current law - it works well.

The reason is this new law elevates the parental responsibility to see to the proper education of their child to an actionable right at law - not a social/moral value we all agree with.

True most will not pursue legal remedies for alleged breaches. Others and other groups are waiting anxiously just for that chance and some poor teacher will get their names in the notorious list of famous fundamentalist and homophobic legal cases coming out of Alberta.

If those religious fundamentalists wrapped in the disguise of parental rights lose their case(s) they will accuse the courts of judicial activism. Judicial activism happens but only when our elected representatives pass bad or poorly worded laws. Bill 44 passes both of those damning tests.

Consider the evidence in such cases. It will be he said/she said and the only objective evidence of what went on in the offending classrooms will be the other students. what if they have to testify for or against a classmate or teacher is some show trial for activitists religious fundamentalists. How offensive and inappropriate is that?

Anonymous said...

Intent, indeed.
On the one hand, we have had no public consultation around the parental rights piece of Bill 44. The conversation was had behind closed doors amongst caucus. Minister Blackett claims the silent majority of parents support this section of the bill. Based on what?
On the other hand, our government is engaged in an ongoing conversation with the public about education in Alberta. Inspiring Education is meant to be “... an exchange of ideas to change each other’s thinking about what education is and what education means. It’s about looking to the future and deciding what education in Alberta should be in twenty years. No matter who you are or where you live in Alberta, we invite you to listen and contribute to the conversation. One of the primary goals is to reach a clear understanding of what it will mean to be an educated Albertan 20 years from now. To reach that goal we need everyone’s voice.” It would seem to me that this would have been the appropriate forum to have had the discussion around parent rights and their involvement with their child’s education.
From my perspective, the vocal minority is being catered to and it will be this group that will impinge upon my parental rights to secure my child a balanced education. Where is my protection?

Anonymous said...

A pretty balanced approach to this Bill, thanks ES!

Personally, I think the hysteria around this piece of legislation is way overblown.

In my opinion, if teachers do their 'job' correctly, then classroom instruction will successfully have students learning how to think, rather than being instructed as to what to think. That being the case, those same students will have developed a healthy curiosity about offsets to the moral and ethical matters that are the parental prerogative to provide guidance.

I see no future rush to the Human Rights Commission as Frank Bruseker might want folks to believe. What Mr. Bruseker is rushing to do, though, is create a noise that would gain him national notoriety on the eve of his seeking the office leading the national teachers association.