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Three Back To School EssentialsThree Back To School Essentials

Three Back To School Essentials

As parents jot down to-do lists for their kids’ return to school, Cardus Director of Education Beth Green sets out her top priorities for educational success.

Beth Green
5 minute read

Parents what are the top three things to pack in your kid’s schoolbag?

These days back to school supplies like coloured pencils and geometry sets run a poor second place to YouTube. At the end of the summer vacation, when I checked out videos about the best hairstyles, the best first day back outfits, and hacks for making going back to school easier, they had 132,000, 286,000 and 341,000 views respectively.

So, whether you as parents are more anxious than your children are about the first day of school, or whether the return to routine comes as a welcome relief, what are the top three items to pay attention to as the academic year begins?  

Top of my list would be insisting on the fact they are first and foremost your kids. They will spend 15,000 hours in school, according to a landmark study by James Coleman in 1966. True, school must now compete with YouTube and Snapchat, but the parenting research shows it still won’t be as influential on your child’s maturity and development as you are. The clear win is for school to work with your educational priorities and your family’s values not against them, to protect young people as they learn to critically reflect and make wise judgement for themselves, rather than impose uniform educational pathways.

Second on my list would be to remember that quality of teaching and learning matters considerably more than the latest curriculum or technology fads. Teaching quality is enhanced by educational diversity far more than by the latest techno gadget or novel pedagogical methods.

Third, don’t settle for less than equitable access to the school of your choice.

Remember that the onus isn’t just on you as parents to be active partners in your child’s schooling: teaching is a sacred trust. Standing in the place of the parent, acting in loco parentis, should be a key professional component of teaching. It manifests itself when teachers are empowered to plan for individual learning needs, when they understand and respect the values and religious beliefs of your family and community, and can speak intelligibly about the nation’s past with confidence.

School systems where parents are close to the heart of decision-making are much more accountable to their communities, and much more responsive to the needs of students, than to the whim of the school board or teaching unions. Don’t relinquish your children to a system where you can’t hear your voice or see your community and its values fully reflected. Parental voice, community participation and civic engagement are the signs of a healthy school system, and some of the best examples come from Canada’s independent schools.

Recent research shows that Canadian teachers lack the confidence to discuss Indigenous cultures in class (Source Globe and Mail). Side stepping the realities of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity in our classrooms in the name of tolerance is a dangerous strategy that leads to more, not less, division in the public square. There is an award-winning example in Ontario of schoolteachers actively collaborating with a local museum to bring storytellers from their local community into the Grade 10 English and History curriculum.

Jeff Weening and Kim Furtney, teachers at Unity Christian High School in Barrie, Ontario won a John Rozema Excellence Award in Teaching for their Canadian Stories project. You can’t win one of these awards unless you can show that your teaching demonstrates a clear educational purpose, exhibits academic rigor and serves the wider community. Jeff and Kim set rigorous standards: Whether students used a pen or an iPad, they were expected to know the techniques of good narrative writing and demonstrate excellence in spelling and grammar. When students interviewed parents, friends and community members, they had to do their research and know their history so that stories of immigration, military service, experiences of residential schooling, or growing up French Canadian were treated with respect and retold with accuracy. For their part, students were challenged to see that every artefact, person and place has its own story that needs to be told.

Edmonton Christian School is part of the alternatively funded school system in Alberta. It employs a story teller whose job it is to listen, re-tell and help community members understand one another as the diversity of their community and its needs has grown. They are participating in a Cardus research study that maps mission and ethos against parental expectations and measures student outcomes with a particular focus on character, religious and spiritual beliefs. They are taking seriously their responsibility to steward public funding, provide high quality education and be responsive to their parental community.

Neither of these two schools is government run, yet both clearly have no problem reconciling the aims for public education in Canada with the responsibility of acting in the place of parents.

The national Cardus Education survey shows that, overall, this balance of good academic, with civic, religious and spiritual outcomes is better fulfilled by independent schools. In Canada, the graduates of independent schools are more civically minded than their public school counterparts. Evangelical Protestant and independent Catholic graduates are more likely to volunteer in non-church organisations. Evangelical Protestants are more likely to give blood, to donate to charity and to report that they feel responsible for the welfare of others than public school graduates. All of this raises the question of equity across the provinces. In British Columbia and Alberta, your ability to attend a school of your choice is considerably enhanced by the alternative school funding systems. In Ontario, there is only funding for the public and separate Catholic school systems.

The distance between parent and teacher, and between parent and the system, matters profoundly. It is felt at the point when your child’s needs conflict with those of the school board, whose needs in turn conflict with provincial education spending priorities. Here are three things you can do:

  • Introduce yourself and offer to share your story with your child’s class or homeroom teacher; don’t wait for them to ask
  • Forward the videos of excellent teaching and learning here to your school board to show that you know what excellence in education looks like
  • Ask your elected officials all the awkward questions you want to about education priorities and spending because you, your child and your community deserve to be at the centre of the system

Don’t wait for the letters to come home in the schoolbag. Write some of your own.

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Topics: Education

Beth Green 

Beth Green is a Senior Fellow in Education for Cardus, and formerly Program Director of Cardus Education. She is Provost & Chief Academic Officer and Acting Dean of the University at Tyndale University in Toronto.

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