Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2000

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R.D. Gidney
From Hope to Harris: The Reshaping of Ontario’s Schools.
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999; viii, 362 pp. $65.00 cloth, (0-8020-4292-9), $ 24.95 (0-8020-8125-8) paper.

D.W. Livingstone, D. Hart, and L.E. Davie.
Public Attitudes Towards Education in Ontario 1998: The Twelfth OISE/UT Survey.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, xii, 103 pp. $14.95 (0-8020-8306-4) paper.

R.D. Gidney’s book is not what many think it may be. By juxtaposing “Hope” (the head of a 1950 royal commission) to the leader of the current provincial government, his title will mislead some to expect a diatribe against the latter. Instead, Gidney reviews the last half century of Ontario education policy and politics over a procession of governments, Tory, Liberal, and NDP. For Gidney, underlying trends such as the rise of near-universal secondary education, the demise of the little red schoolhouse, power struggles between governments and teacher federations, the funding of separate Catholic schools, and ongoing battles between Progressive pedagogues and their opponents are the real story. While highlighting the roles of particular governments and royal commissions, his overall message is about broad changes, not the vagaries of Left-Right politicking. For instance, he argues that much of the controversy sparked by the Tories obscures the fact many of their policies were advocated by previous administrations. Though their breathtaking pace and confrontational tactics have led to an alarming disarray in Ontario schools, Gidney concludes that in light of the province’s education history, the continuities of Tory policy are more striking than its discontinuities.

Gidney offers a mixed verdict on the state of Ontario public education. While quite aware of the need to expand the system, he does not flinch from recognizing the strains and occasional mediocrity of the universal “shopping mall high school.” While agnostic on whether or not educational standards have actually dropped, and while sympathetic to teachers, he does not dismiss today’s “back to basics” critics, nor is he a cheerleader for Progressive pedagogy. Gidney is sharply critical of the excesses of child-centred philosophizing, which makes him rather contrarian among academics.

Nevertheless, readers will be impressed with the author’s fifty year historical sweep, and his admirable balance and even-handed tone. The book is a refreshing addition to the current literature on educational politics, much of which is marred by polemical axe-grinding on all ideological fronts. His fine-grained historical description of particular political factions, personnel, legal decisions and educational acts will enlighten anyone interested in Ontario schooling. This detail, however, will leave sociologists wondering about comparative issues. It is fascinating to consider how, despite all the minute details that are specific to Ontario, most of the same broad trends have occurred across North America. Sociologists should take his book as a call to analyse just how Ontario schools, with all their particulars and idiosyncrasies, nevertheless resemble schools in other educational jurisdictions, both nationally and internationally. But these comparative issues notwithstanding, Gidney is surely right to portray the massive expansion of Ontario schools as one of the most compelling projects of the province’s history, and as proof of its public commitment to education.

In this context it is interesting to ponder the ongoing OISE surveys, conducted by David Livingstone and his colleagues. Though schooling rarely becomes a decisive election issue, all political parties are increasingly sensitive about their educational stances. Recent governments, seeking popularity, have adopted platforms that are partly poll-driven and borrowed from educational jurisdictions elsewhere. For instance, when the ruling NDP in 1995 perceived public confidence in education to be low, it proposed a set of popular American measures, including standardized testing, parent councils, and uniform report cards (initiatives all since implemented by the Harris government).

The OISE polls combine questions that have been repeated over some years with new ones aimed at topical educational issues. The former suggest that Ontarians’ general satisfaction with schools does not show a clear trend over time, while the latter suggest a fairly negative assessment of the Harris government’s educational record. Unfortunately, there are no multivariate analyses, so we do not know whether some key differences (such as the more critical stances taken by corporate executives, compared to other occupational groups) have other correlates such as age, income, or gender. The value of some survey questions is also unclear. Why ask survey respondents if, for instance, they believe that low-income or Aboriginal Canadians have an equal chance of getting a higher education, or if a university education is important for income and employment, when these are empirical matters? Since the pollsters do not compare public opinion to the results of research, the utility of these questions is questionable

Nevertheless, the OISE polls are a handy barometer of the public mood. One telling pattern is that a majority of Ontarians wish to see more educational spending and more measures to boost quality of education. Such results would probably not surprise Gidney, and they likely reflect a sentiment that has prevailed in Ontario for many decades.

Scott Davies
Department of Sociology
McMaster University
June 2000
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