Is Our Education System Failing the Test of Life? a Curriculum Artifact Paper by Joanne Sawyer

Is Our Education System Failing the Test of Life? a Curriculum Artifact Paper by Joanne Sawyer

The humour of The Simpsons, taken at face value, serves as a form of escapism entertainment for viewers. How can we really think that our lives and families are dysfunctional when Homer and his clan portray the essence of dysfunction as normal? Unveiling the humour, however, we discover the provocative messages peppered in the dialogue of each episode. Not only does the sitcom fail to provide the desired escape from reality, but instead forces us to contemplate all that is wrong with our society. Education has not evaded the societal attack by the show’s writers. The appearance in Bart’s classroom of Zachary Vaughn- a teacher fresh out of university with a Master’s degree and an affinity for the use of technology in the classroom- is a prime example of the hidden curriculum of The Simpsons. A mental breakdown follows Zachary’s brief stint as an educator, which involves his physical removal from the school premises by the all-knowing Groundskeeper Willie, the quiet authority who has seen it all before. It is Mr. Vaughn’s fanatical, yet perceptive, diatribe that opens the door to theorizing regarding the actual message intended for the audience.

Get him off me. You can get rid of me, but you can’t get rid of the truth man. This school is a glorified hamster wheel run by incompetent bureaucrats who can take you through a test, but you will fail the test of life. (Selman, 2009)

In skimming the top of the preceding comment, it would seem obvious that Mr. Vaughn has a valid point. A school that is run by incompetent bureaucrats will lead to ineffective instruction and learning, and thus inadequate life preparedness. However, I am not content to skim the top. I want to dig deeper into his comment to analyse the inconsistencies in the real message he is trying to convey, thereby leading to greater discrepancies in the education system. The ultimate curriculum question What knowledge is of most worth can be drawn into the contemplation of Zachary Vaughn’s comment, combined with the deconstruction of the discrepancies. Consequently, we can now enter into an essential complicated conversation regarding the bureaucratic presence in the education system- a system that cannot afford to fail the test of life.

In considering the meaning of bureaucracy and its presence in education, there are discrepancies that become obvious when considering the curricular question What knowledge is of most worth?. Upon further reflection of these discrepancies, we are able to establish who is determining what knowledge is considered of value. From here, we can uncover the effects of such determinations upon the various stakeholders in education: those who have something to gain or lose.

On the surface, bureaucracy implies the organization of a system in order to maintain routine and efficiency. It is not surprising that education systems have fallen prey to the presence and control of a bureaucracy in the assistance of their management. The discrepancy lies in the reasons for having an external governing body versus what actually takes place within the system that is under the control of the bureaucracy. Through his historical walk of Canada’s education system, Tomkins (1981) demonstrated the detrimental effect of curriculum centralization in Canada by 1980.

Ostensibly, the new system is supposed to be more efficient and effective but it seems unlikely to be appealing either to those who demand more “participatory democracy” in curriculum development or to bureaucrats faced with the problem of implementing elegantly devised guidelines. (p. 152)

Personally, I have experienced this contradiction of the perceived value of external administrative control and guidance as opposed to the actual outcomes of such control. I was teaching in a school board where Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) were developed within each division in every school. The theory behind the PLC process advocates the benefits of collaborative learning amongst teachers in applying strategies to improve student learning. In reality, however, the application of the PLC theoretical process was not effective or efficient. For example, for one school term, our PLC focus was on one writing expectation from the Ontario curriculum. This expectation was selected by an administrative team from the board who based their selection on the results of the EQAO provincial standardized tests from the previous school year. Classroom teachers were not consulted, nor was consideration given to individual school needs. A consultant was assigned to work with each school to ensure that we were adhering to the board approved PLC process, as well as maintaining focus on the required curriculum expectation. At the end of the school term, following numerous lessons concentrating on the chosen writing expectation, summative assessments were completed by the students. The results were then inputted into the board’s data collection system by the classroom teachers. Although the sharing of resources and lesson strategies was collaborative, the entire process was focused on one expectation resulting in a narrowing of the curriculum. Thus, the time consuming nature of the process stole time from other, more relevant areas of the curriculum that were being ignored.

The hierarchical positioning of curriculum control is obvious in the previous narrative example, which now leads the discussion towards the next discrepancy. We live in a democratic society which, according to Apple & Beane as cited in Ricci (2004), allows for an open flow of ideas, the creation of possibilities for problem-solving, the use of critical reflection and analysis for evaluation of ideas, and concern for the dignity and rights of others (p. 341).  However, education is organized, implemented, and then lived by the various stakeholders in a contradictory undemocratic way. By undemocratic, I mean the uneven balance of control and shared contribution experienced by all participants in the education system. How has this been allowed to occur? In considering the views of various curriculum theorists, a recurring premise is the structure of the education system based on a business, corporate model. Within such a model, outcomes-based learning that confirms accountability repeatedly justifies the imposition of top down control within education.  O’Sullivan (1999) describes this structuring within a global economic competitiveness paradigm where “knowledge has become the competitive asset and advantage of industrial nations in the global economy” (p. 311), and thus, has directed educational reforms in Ontario in recent history. In his analysis of the evolution of school expectations, Ungerleider (2004) also points to the historical business-minded view of the purpose of education: “… schooling was an investment in the development of “human capital”. Like an investment in manufacturing plants and equipment, investing in the development of human capital through schooling paid off for the individual and for the economy” (p. 19).  The inundation of a business model within education, according to Pinar (2012), is so profound that as the economic focus in society has changed from industrialism to corporatism, education has followed suit. What has remained the same, however, is the continued focus on outcomes and standardization.

Intelligence is viewed as a means to an end, the acquisition of cognitive skills, specialized knowledge, and social attitudes utilizable in the corporate sector. The maximization of profits remains the “bottom line” of the corporation as well as that of its earlier version, the factory. (Pinar, 2012, p. 38)

Thus, the outcome is the goal, but the goal of whom and for whose benefit?

The contradiction between an undemocratic education system existing within a democratic society becomes even more apparent when considering standardization-a concept that is repeatedly emphasized as a goal, and a requirement of educational achievement by governing bodies at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Contradictory to this point of view is the degradation of the education system as a result of the focus on standardization, which, in effect, negatively impacts society. In theorizing what it is that schools teach, Apple & King (1977) consider the standardization of the schooling experience through the  hidden curriculum-“the tacit teaching of social and economic norms and expectations to students in schools” (p. 341). Through the implementation and living of the hidden curriculum social and economic institutions are being maintained and recreated by teaching practices (Apple & King, 1977, p. 347). Thus, in socializing our students in the rules and routines of the institution of school, are we in effect encouraging the continuation of the homogenized curriculum and establishment that we are opposing?

In reflecting on my first two years of teaching in a kindergarten classroom, I can see how the standardization of the classroom environment occurred through daily teaching of social norms. Much time was spent teaching such behaviours as putting up your hand to speak, lining up, sitting quietly in a circle, asking for a drink of water or permission to use the washroom, finishing a task, learning the classroom routines based on my timetable, and responding to the bell. Furthermore, these skills were expected to be carried forward with the students as they progressed through the school system. It appears as though the implementation of the hidden curriculum encourages behavioural and social control rather than the desired critical, divergent thinking of our students.

Perhaps the most blatant example of undemocratic standardization within our school system has been the focus on standardized testing. As Zachary Vaughn’s condemnation of education underscored, the bureaucratic notion of a test does not necessarily assume preparation for the test of life. The curriculum question What knowledge is of most worth? is a central component when examining the contradictions surrounding standardized testing. The problem lies in the determination of which curricular knowledge and skills are most valuable, and for what reasons were they chosen. Unfortunately, in the quest to prove accountability, what is considered most worthy in preparing students to live in a democratic society is not what becomes valued. What is valued is the content of the tests, and the skills required to take the test. Furthermore, the skills and knowledge that are being taught are limiting the possibilities of education, as indicated by The Canadian Principals Association which is “increasingly concerned that current policies and practices on student testing are leading to…a secretive or unintended shift of priorities to focus on a narrow range of student knowledge and literacy/numeracy skills (Canadian Association of Principals, 2007, as cited in Westheimer, 2010, p. 6). Moreover, Ricci (2004) suggests that thinking becomes further simplified as students become more adept at test-taking and teachers at teaching the test-taking skills. Scores may go up, but education is diminished (p. 357). Thus, we are left with queries that emphasize the gap between the knowledge valued by the bureaucratic controls and that which is valued by educators. Who determines the value of the literacy and numeracy skills as compared to all other aspects of the curriculum? Why are all other subject areas excluded? How does a numerical value translate into critical, divergent thinking? Where is the focus on differentiated instruction based on formative assessment strategies? Where is the subjectivity?

Prevalent in the analyses of the effects of standardized testing in the education system is the de-skilling (Ricci, 2004) and de-professionalization (Westheimer, 2010) of teachers, who are seen as “managers of student learning” (Pinar, 2012). What to teach and how to teach is being imposed on teachers in Ontario from a centrally controlled governing body. The Ontario Curriculum states what students ‘will’ be able to do. EQAO standardized tests provide the required accountability ensuring that students are ‘learning’ and teachers are ‘teaching’. Once again the undemocratic structure of the education system illuminates the control over the stakeholders- students and teachers- who are implementing and living the curriculum of the central power.

The confining effects of the standardization of learning were made apparent to me last year when I was teaching grade 2. The diversity of skills, interests, abilities, behaviours and personalities amongst the 19 students in my class was overwhelming, until the inevitable teacher/student relationships began to solidify. One of my students had Down’s Syndrome; another, who tested superior on gifted scores, was also being tested for Asperger’s Syndrome; yet another had just lost his father in a car accident and had no interest in school whatsoever; one girl was hearing impaired with accompanying speech problems; one little boy was being treated for depression as he wanted to hurt himself and others; and the rest were a typical mix of primary students.  At the beginning of the school year, I attempted to follow the grade 2 curriculum. I also participated in the staff PLC process. However, as the Fall progressed, it was obvious that I had to adapt. My students did not fit into the box of standards that had been set out for them by the Ministry of Education. I considered the varying needs of my students, and what we could realistically achieve together. I differentiated the program based on the stories and the lives of the students that were with me, not based on a theory, or a set of standards, or a mandate from the board. If I had not adapted, I would have had students who were bored, frustrated, and apathetic to what was happening in the classroom. Instead, I learned about the stubbornness of children with Down’s Syndrome, as well as how loving they can be. I discovered the frustration of children with Autism, and how misunderstood they feel. I heard the father and son stories from a little boy who will never see his dad again. I was given a glimpse into the thinking of a boy who was so sad and angry that he did not know how to express himself. I wore a hearing aid for the first time and discovered the discomfort Jordyn had to live with every day. I learned about Eid, Ramadan, the Chinese New Year, and Orthodox celebrations. I listened to the stories of my students’ lives, made them part of our classroom curriculum and part of the lived curricula that they will carry with them.

As educators, curriculum theorists, and concerned citizens, what can we do to make ourselves heard and rebalance the control of the education system? How do we take part in the question What knowledge is of most worth? How do we ensure that our education system is not failing the test of life? We must remain active participants in our pursuit of an intellectual education system. Teachers can do this by “…expressing loyalty to the profession, by refusing to teach to the test, by insisting that students engage with ideas and facts critically and with passion through solitary study and classroom deliberation” (Pinar, 2012, p. 10). Further to Pinar’s recommendations, Westheimer (2010) also encourages the promotion of a “thinking curriculum” by asking students inquiring questions, thinking about local and global commitments, originating instruction in local contexts surrounding issues that matter to the students, providing information that requires debate and conjecture (p. 8).  Beyond the classroom, Ricci (2004) insists that we must become vocal and politically active in our resolve to create a more democratic school system- one that does not merely “train workers at the expense of educating freethinking citizens” (p. 360).  As professionals, we have the intellectual capacity to understand the inconsistencies between what is in the best interests of our students versus the knowledge and skills considered of most worth by governing bureaucracies.  We have the capability to promote such a “thinking curriculum”.  Most importantly, we have the compassion required to instigate change for the stakeholders who are not being heard.  Recently, I was teaching a grade 6 boy with Autism.  Following a science experiment, he was asked to write what he had learned from the experiment. A problem arose when he said that he already knew what was going to happen before the experiment was even conducted. It was already something that he had learned.  Thus, he believed that it was unnecessary and a waste of his time to complete the required task. He became visibly upset and inconsolable.  What he said during his outburst, however, reminded me of the reasons why we need to question standards, homogenization, and preconceived outcomes. “Why do I have to say that this is what I have learned when I already knew it? Why do I have to write that? There is no reason for me to write down what I already know.”  And he was right. Needless to say, I didn’t make him complete the task. Instead, his lived curricular experience provoked yet another complicated conversation in the continuous experiences of the curriculum that I am living.


Apple, M. W., & King, N. R. (1977). What do schools teach?. Curriculum Inquiry, 6(4), 341-358.

O’Sullivan, Brian. (Summer, 1999). Global change and educational reform in Ontario and Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 24(3), pp.311-325.

Pinar, W. F.  (2012). What is curriculum theory? (Second ed.).  New York: Routledge.

Ricci, C. (2004). The case against standardized testing and the call for a revitalization of democracy. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies, 26(4), 339-361.

Selman, M. (2009). Bart gets a z [Television series episode]. In The Simpsons. United States: Fox Broadcasting Company.

Tomkins, G. (1981).  Stability and change in the Canadian curriculum.  In D. Wilson (Ed.), Canadian Education in the 1980s (pp. 135-158).  Calgary, Alberta: Detselig Enterprises Limited.

Ungerleider, C. (2004). Changing expectations changing schools: The evolving concept of the good school. Education Canada, 44(3), 18-21.

Westheimer, J. (2010). No child left thinking: Democracy at risk in Canada’s schools. Education Canada, 50(2), 5-8.