From Hope to Harris: The Reshaping of Ontario’s Schools – GIDNEY (CSS)

GIDNEY, R. D. From Hope to Harris: The Reshaping of Ontario’s Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 362p. Resenha de: BREI, Margaret E. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.2, p., 2004.

Why is it expedient to re-visit a book written in 1999? Because the information it contains remains valuable for clarifying common issues surrounding change within an education system. Moreover, controversy over educational change is not limited to one province or any single time, in this case Ontario in the second half of the twentieth century. Educational change is fast becoming a decisive issue over which political wars are fought provincially, nationally and internationally. My various roles as an educator have, until recently, been played out on the Alberta stage. As I witnessed the latest educational policy changes under the Klein Conservative government, in both structure and curriculum, it was impossible not to make a comparison of that journey with the one on which From Hope to Harris takes the reader. Finding myself on yet another stage, this time in the United States, where once again the complexities of major educational policy and curriculum restructuring are being played out, I can only ask: Is there nothing new? Therefore, it was with deliberate resolve that I revisited Gidney’s work, this time using the context of comparative decision-making in matters of educational policy. Larry Cuban remarked that the loci of impetus for any educational change are often to be found in the current malaise of society. His one liner When society has an itch, the schools scratch (1992, p. 216) underscores the acute vulnerability of educational change to social change. Gidney’s work is a case study of Cuban’s critical theory. The historical examination of the process of decision-making involved in developing the present system in Ontario provides valuable insights and serves as a Rosetta Stone for those wishing to contribute to an understanding of educational change in their own jurisdictions.

The volume provides possible answers to a series of relevant questions using Ontario as an example. It identifies the thematic strands of the theoretical framework of policy formation. These strands are imbedded in the 15 chapters and can be identified as: the steps of the decision making process; the classification of the agents of the decision making process; the aims of policy; the methods of legitimization of policy decisions; the competing views of the process; the models or styles of policy formation, and the decision making process as a factor of innovation. When applied to the upheaval within Ontario’s education from the Hope commission, 1945-1950, to the changes implemented by the Harris government, the volume provides a skillful, fifty year historical sweep in an attempt to answer: who made what decisions, how were they making them and why were they making them? From Hope to Harris, however, involves more than a chronological story of the events or even a blueprint for other studies of this nature. It aims to understand the processes of policy making and to offer it as a guide to present practices and thereby provide implications for the present decision makers. Employing the research strategy of the descriptive case study and using the documentary content analysis technique of the historiographer, Gidney is well qualified. As an educational historian and Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario, he has spent his career examining primary source documents, and gained a reputation as a scholar of educational history in Ontario with volumes such as Elementary Education in Upper Canada: A Reassessment and Inventing Secondary Education: The Rise of the High School in Nineteenth-Century Ontario. He demonstrates a delightfully subtle sense of humor with statements such as: In 1943 Ontario’s voters put the Conservatives in power, and, in a fit of absent-mindedness left them there for just over forty years (p.43). The reader is challenged to reflect on the information by choosing the context in which to use the information and thereby make it meaningful and useful on a personal level.

The volume has become required reading on campuses for courses in such diverse areas as: Sociology of Education, Educational Policy and Program Evaluation, Topics in Comparative Politics, Ontario Government and Politics, and The Economic Development of Ontario. It is my hope that it would also appear on the required reading list for all members of the various levels of government. The volume is profusely documented with bibliographic notes, an extensive index, and an appendix filled with statistical charts all testimony to the quality of research that is the foundation of this volume.

In each chapter, the focus is on a different era in policy, pedagogy, curriculum, and political change. The topics record changes in fiscal policy, educational professionalism, growing teacher militancy, union action, the structure of education, the government’s role, administration/supervision of schools and school districts, movements for equality in education, and the progress toward university trained elementary and secondary teachers. Although extensively using edu-speak, Gidney heroically attempts to make the story of Ontario’s education restructuring into a suspenseful who-done-it, as he unfolds the plot and chronicles the move toward a centralized policy but a decentralized curriculum. He clearly describes the actions of the Ontario government that moved from sharing administrative power with local educational authorities to stripping school boards of their power. In doing so, the Conservative government’s decisions, made by powerful individuals, weakened public education and badly eroded teacher morale. Gidney examines Ontario’s experiment with universal education, including secondary education for all, and seems to indicate that the experiment was not as radical as it could have been.

The final impression I take away is that educational decision-making, and the resulting changes, is a political process closely tied to the social and political milieu. The government reacted to internal and external pressures and intervened in structuring. For the average teacher this resulted in a loss of autonomy. Gidney demonstrates that any form of change is enlivened by the political interaction that took place between individuals and groups as they sought to influence the decision making process. Re-reading the work in this context, calls to attention the process of contending with competing interests, agendas and preferences in attempting to create educational policy and administer its implementation. Society changes over time, legislative power changes over time, educational philosophy and pedagogy change over time and the development of a jurisdiction’s educational policy is a lengthy process.

In re-visiting this volume, I can only suggest that a new edition is in order with added chapters bringing the reader up to date on the issues in Ontario’s education system. Issues such as corporate donors and their involvement in the curriculum, the two tiered system, the restructuring of the high school, the present level of local control of education, the existing teacher morale and the overall current state of the teaching profession should be addressed.

Cuban, L. (1992). Curriculum stability and change. In P.W. Jackson (Ed.). Handbook of Research on Curriculum.

Margaret E. Brci – City University of New York. New York, New York.

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