Mark Holmes. The Reformation of Canada’s Schools: Breaking the Barriers to Parental Choice. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998, 293 pp. Paper.

There is no shortage of acrimony in Canadian public education these days. In a climate of budget cutting, attacks on Progressive pedagogy, and mudslinging between teacher unions and governments, tensions are high. Mark Holmes, Professor Emeritus from OISE, enters the fray with a book on what is perhaps the currently most disputatious issue in public education - school choice. Holmes, like other public school choice advocates, calls for greater variety in educational mandates and methods, increased freedom for parents to choose, and further re-routing of power from boards to local schools. Focussing on Ontario, the author advances a particular argument for extending public funds to non-Catholic religious schools. He sees public schools as imposing a secular, materialist world-view and a Progressive pedagogy that alienates many, particularly those with strong religious and/or pedagogical preferences. He notes that Ontario’s funding of Separate, French Immersion and Alternative schools allows 40% of the province's youth to attend alternatives to their local public school, and argues that more parents should enjoy such choice.

School choice debates are usually heated yet predictable. Advocates claim that choice initiatives extend to the poor the options now available to only the wealthy, and inject into education a dynamic spirit of innovation and quality-improvement. Opponents renounce choice as an elitist ploy to segregate advantaged students from the less fortunate, to siphon off public dollars to private schools, and to eventually privatize the system.

Holmes wishes to transcend these now-cliched arguments, and in many respects he succeeds. Knowing his call for fundamental reform is unwelcome among most professional educators, and knowing they mostly oppose choice and traditional schooling, he offers a somewhat novel position. Rather than touting a market rationale, he advances an argument based on educational pluralism, namely that schools ought to satisfy a breadth of public preference while not imposing values or pedagogies upon the unwilling. Satisfying this principle was easier in 19th century Canada, he notes, when educators could serve small, tightly-knit and relatively homogenous local communities with a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum. But consensus on the purpose of education is no longer possible, he warns. Most public schools today are in mass suburbs that, containing a plethora of ethnic, religious, and life-style sensibilities, are no longer “communities” in any meaningful sense. The only way to regain a spirit of community in our schools while addressing Canada’s diversity, he argues, is to permit like-minded citizens and teachers to choose their preferred educational environment. In essence, Holmes uses contemporary multiculturalist rhetoric about diversity and inclusion to call for a more differentiated public school system.

Holmes offers a wide-ranging commentary, from school funding, to student achievement, transitions to work, and school effectiveness, but what I found most useful was his realism. He mostly avoids the hyperbole and one-sidedness that mars most debates over school reform. When discussing quality of schooling, he, unlike many conservative critics, knows teachers face a challenging social context, and so avoids blaming them unfairly. He wants more rigour in our schools, but does not tout computers as a technocratic panacea. When discussing equity, he knows family background is a greater determinant of student success than school factors, and so avoids blaming class and ethnic disparities on some vaguely described “discrimination.” When discussing the politics of education, he dismisses simplistic characterizations of current struggles as a “class war,” showing that many combatants on both sides are upper middle class, self - interested actors, and that progressive pedagogy is the creation of affluent professionals, not the downtrodden. His sharp analysis of transitions from school to work reminds us of the continuing saliency of sociological criticisms of credential inflation.
Despite its balance and evenhandedness, the book will displease many readers within Canadian sociology. It rambles occasionally; passages are pocked with asides and digressions, and its thread of argument is not always apparent. Many will bristle at his negative stance towards teacher unions, whom he chides for blocking school reform. His support for standardized testing and traditional philosophies of education is guaranteed to antagonize, as is his criticism of progressive pedagogy. Nevertheless, Holmes’ book is well-argued and nuanced, and its ideological distance from sociology’s mainstream provides all the more reason for us to read it.

Scott Davies
Department of Sociology, McMaster University

February 1999
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