Wednesday, March 6, 2013

At the speed of politics

Today a teacher at Elli's school sent around a notice to parents talking about Health Education, which doesn't really include explicit sex education at Elli's age but does start to touch on those topics.  The notice talked about something fairly interesting:  The curriculum has not been updated since 1998.  Fifteen years isn't enough time to change the fundamentals of sex but it sure is too long for much of what children are taught.  Consider that since that time gay marriage has been legalized and communication, instead of being restricted to letters and phones for most people, now involves twitter, facebook, and email for all.

Technology changes rapidly and is continuing to change ever more quickly as time goes by.  These changes propagate through our social systems with remarkable speed and it is important that we understand how the new ways of doing things affect us and educate our children appropriately.  The trouble is that politics does not move at the speed of technology; politicians and high level bureaucrats usually take huge amounts of time to change things.  Taken together this means that when our curriculum is tightly controlled by a central agency it is going to continue to lag behind society.

Of course Not all of that can be tossed at the doorstep of politicians because when changes are brought in right on the heels of a social shift people complain.  Changing the curriculum to support gay marriage will inevitably end up running afoul of religious fundamentalists who demand that their children not be taught such things.  The point at which a new idea is recognized as a good thing to teach and the point at which criticism of that idea can be easily ignored are too far apart and this means that those who feel they must pander to anachronistic bigotry resist change for quite some time.

To avoid this whole mess requires significantly empowering teachers and stepping away from a centrally designed curriculum.  When individual teachers are given the authority to change what they teach based on what is happening they can respond to new ideas efficiently in a way that a central bureaucracy simply cannot.  It will inevitably lead to a few teachers that teach things badly in their own special way but that is a small price to pay for all the rest of the teachers being able to teach far more effectively because their shackles have been removed.  We do want all children to get a good education but enforcing mediocrity on everyone is not the way to do that.


  1. But what if the teacher is a hardcore conservative who is violently opposed to Gay marriage?

  2. I guess it depends what they teach. If they teach religion as truth then they get booted out, obviously. If they lie about gay marriage being legal then they get booted out too, of course. The only real issue is if they claim that gay marriage is wrong and try to talk the kids into being anti gay. I am pretty sure that is covered by school board policy and has absolutely nothing to do with curriculum though.

    If they just don't teach about gay marriage at all then I guess we just suck it up. Like I said, letting teachers do their thing without much interference isn't perfect because some of them will suck. It does generate better outcomes in general though; see Finland's education system for an example.

    We are better off as a whole when we let teachers have more autonomy and latitude in teaching children. That doesn't mean every child gets a better education every day but it does mean that children throughout the education system get a better education over their school careers which is far more important.

  3. I can see where some autonomy is fabulous. But I think there does need to be some parameters within which the teachers need to stay, otherwise we could get the extremes pushing their own agenda. I am a very liberal person, and would be very upset if my child was being taught a something against this.

    I can see where some would push the 'gay is bad' idea. And that wouldn't be acceptable.

    At the same time, generally the schools seem to be fairly liberal. My teen says there's a poster at her school that says 'some people are gay. Deal with it' which i think is the best message. It is what it is and it doesn't matter who someone sleeps with (so long as they're of age & consenting!)

  4. Teachers can work "gay is bad" into the math curriculum as well if they really want to. We have human rights codes that disallow that and even a teacher who really thinks gay is bad is going to know that teaching it in class might land them in a lot of hot water.

    The real issue, then is that there might be communities that think that gay is bad, and the teachers in those communities may teach that gay is bad and no one will call them out on it, and the gay kids caught in that system are kind of screwed. But, 1) the gay kids in that community are kind of screwed whether we micromanage teachers or not; and 2) though mandating a curriculum that is gay positive may have some marginal benefit to those students, a 15-year-old curriculum is going to be a lot less gay positive than we'd like anyway.

    The question is, is heavy handed micromanaging of teachers getting us the outcomes we want, and is the harm is may be doing outweighing the benefit it might be achieving. I think the benefit is fairly limited and the harm is real. Bad teachers don't actually get much better when given the curriculum, and good teachers are often stifled by it. It's the education equivalent of martial law under which street violence goes down but everyone's lives are made substantially worse.

    I don't want my kids taught by some homophobe, or racist, or sexist, or just plain bad-at-teaching teacher. But at some point they are probably going to be, and I don't think a health curriculum from 1998 will fix that.

  5. There was actually an attempt to change the health curriculum in 2010 by the Liberals. The reaction was so fierce from conservative/religious circles that the Libs pannicked and it was pulled. The main talking point was that students in grade 6/7 were going to be taught about anal sex, while in reality they would have been taught about dangers associated with different forms of sexual activity (anal sex among them). Rumblings that Wynne might bring it back though.

    See below. The third one is especially hilarious.