There are a variety of formal ways by which we can provide for the education of our children (students), including: public schools; private and parochial schools; many different kinds of charter schools; home schooling; private tutoring.
In Canada, and perhaps in some other more or less democratic countries, this or any other list immediately reveals a stark reality: public school education is unique, in at least four ways, among all formal systems of education.
1. Public school education is governed by the entire community, based on the premise that it takes the whole community to raise a child and so the whole community is responsible for the education of every child. No other means of education has such an expansive ‘government’, and this expansiveness makes the front line delivery of education, for school trustees, superintendents and classroom teachers, more complex, fragile, and contentious than is the case in other systems. (For example, people who don’t value public school education may seek election and the opportunity to share in the government of the public school system: they may be elected on the promise to dismantle the system.)
2. Public school education has a political mandate, from the entire community, to draw children into an understanding of what it means to be a citizen. Public school education does not operate having regard only for the program of studies, or the curriculum. Nor does it operate to promote a particular pedagogical framework, or to validate family prosperity, or to affirm a denominational catechism. The purpose of education is both “educare” (from the Greek, ‘to train, or mold’) and educere (to draw or lead out), and the proper end of education might be said to be ‘paideia’ (the education of the good citizen, who is engaged, active, and a contributing member of the community).
3. Teachers in a public school system are agents of the community as a whole. In every other system, teachers are agents of a more narrow community. (Sometimes the community is as small as the Board of Directors of the school.)
4. Public school education begins in an inclusive state, rather than an exclusive state. The intention of public school education is to include every child, without pre-condition of any kind. Admission to public school is not determined by race, gender identity, religion or other credal statement, income, I.Q., natural talent or any other ‘standard’, and so there is no (or less) intimation of elitism. Further, the inclusive state of public school education extends to teachers, administrators, trustees, and voters. Public school education is unique in that it is inclusive from the playground, to the classroom, to the staffroom, to the board room, to the polling station.
In addition, although perhaps not uniquely, within public school education, the preference for the inclusive state is not a precursor to homogenization. The public school system understands an expansive diversity, and celebrates diversity as the basis of robust communities.
Clearly, I have idealized these four unique characteristics. No public school system is as inclusive as we would want it to be. No public school system acknowledges and celebrates diversity as wisely as we would want it to. But our better selves aspire to the ideal, and falling short of the ideal does not cause us to abandon it.
Beyond public school education, every other system of education is:
• governed by an interest group rather than by the public;
• mandated to mirror a more narrow social/political context, rather than a broad context;
• exclusive rather than inclusive (even if it would like to be inclusive); and
• tending toward homogeneity rather than diversity.
Teacher education programs prepare students to teach in any setting, and it appears that they do this without ever illuminating to students that very different contexts have very different implications for teaching, from the development of the program of studies and the curriculum, to the selection and purchase of resource materials, to decisions about methods of instruction, to matters of discipline, to the involvement of parents, and more.
Is there any faculty of education in Canada (or elsewhere) that explicitly addresses the unique nature of public school education, contrasts it with other means of providing education, and deals with the different impacts that different models have on the work of teaching?