Bridging the Gap Between Research and Politics. Interview with Ben Levin

ETFO Voice

I thank you for the opportunity to comment on these important questions, but want to note that they are all complex issues, so the answers below are necessarily brief and incomplete. I have referenced some of my writings where my ideas are laid out more fully, and I look forward very much to discussing these issues with teachers over the coming months.

Your background includes working as a professor at a faculty of education. You are clearly interested in policy issues. How does that background shape your approach to your work in the political arena?

My career has been about half in academia and half in government, so one of my big interests is in fostering connections between these two worlds. I believe that research could make a much more valuable contribution to education policy and practice than is currently the case. I’ve recently published a paper on this issue arising from work I did in 2002-03 for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I also have deep commitments to educational issues that shape my policy work and my research agenda. At the same time, I know that government is a highly volatile arena in which many factors are at play, things often happen very quickly, and a great deal of compromise is inevitable.

Don't you find it frustrating that education policy is more likely to be based on politics than research?

It is a reality of life - and not a bad one - that policy decisions are based on the beliefs and perceptions of elected people, which are in turn shaped by what the public thinks and wants. Research can play an important role here, but citizens would not be happy if elected people consistently made decisions that they do not support, whatever research may say. A critical task, then, is for research to speak to the broad public and the interest community, as that is the way to influence public policy. I hope that the Ministry can support these efforts. The initiatives now being launched, such as the literacy and numeracy strategy being led by my distinguished colleague Avis Glaze, will be solidly rooted in the best available research as well as in a deep understanding of teaching practice and the realities of school life. (These issues are discussed at more length in my forthcoming book about my experience in government - Governing Education - which will be published early in 2005 by University of Toronto Press.)

You have also served as a deputy minister of education in Manitoba. What accomplishments there are you particularly proud of?

Manitoba developed a solid, thoughtful, research- based agenda for school policy that focuses on a core set of actions to improve learning and teaching. It is not glitzy but it is substantive. I'm very proud of getting that agenda in place and moving ahead. The government in Manitoba has also done other important things - honouring the work of our professional educators, improving the collective bargaining environment, strengthening adult learning, replacing the grade 3 standards test with a teacher-led assessment, and so on. (This work is described more fully in an article with John Wiens in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003). Just as importantly, Manitoba did not do the counterproductive things that some other provinces did such as creating a climate of hostility and confrontation in the sector, or focusing on limiting spending or changing governance instead of on learning and student outcomes. We did not do everything that I hoped or wanted, but we did do many good things.

Manitoba is a much smaller and some would say less complex province. How different are the challenges you will face in Ontario?

Clearly the scale is much bigger in Ontario, and there are many more participants. The geography itself is more challenging. In Manitoba one can often get all the key people on an issue into one room. Having spent much of my career in Manitoba, I already knew many people in education. Also I believe that the 1990s were a more tumultuous and difficult time in education in Ontario than in Manitoba, so there is more work to be done here to recreate a positive, forward looking, collaborative and respectful climate. At the same time, the basic issues are very similar and the reservoir of skill and commitment is concommitantly greater in Ontario. I’ve also been struck by the spirit of goodwill in education in the province, and the strong desire people have expressed to work collaboratively on important educational issues.

Teachers in Ontario dislike standardized testing but the public wants it. Who's right?

This issue is a perfect example of what I meant earlier about the relationship between research and policy. Educators have legitimate concerns about large-scale testing (although I would add that many of the concerns about fairness and validity also apply to the other testing of students that goes on in schools, not just to provincial tests.) If citizens continue to believe that provincial testing is valuable, then governments will respond to that belief. Educators have work to do with parents and others around influencing beliefs on this issue. At the same time, we need to look for ways in which whatever testing is done can support an agenda of true educational improvement.

Ontario is an increasingly diverse province. How can Ontario schools respond to the different educational needs and the different values of diverse communities?

I believe that learning to live together in a diverse society (not just in schools) is, along with protecting our natural environment, the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. Nobody has got this figured out yet, but Canada is probably doing as well as any country and taking the issue as seriously as anyone else. If one compares the situation today in terms of respect for diversity in schools to what it was 50 years ago there has been clearly been some very significant progress. Yet much remains to be done to ensure that all segments of our community are well served by the public schools; equity is a very big issue for me. There is no recipe for this work but we need to have a continuing dialogue in our schools and communities about what it means to educate effectively with and for diversity. I know that many people in Ontario are working hard on these issues and look forward to learning from them.

In Ontario, over the past eight to 10 years, an increasing number of parents have decided to send their children to private schools. What can the government do to restore confidence in the public education system in Ontario?

Several things have already changed, such as moving to a positive rather than a negative public dialogue about education. Good relations between teachers, boards and the province will be another important element. However, in the longer term, public confidence rests, I believe, on our ensuring that student outcomes (broadly defined) are good and that schools are responsive to the concerns of parents and communities.

You have disagreed with those who state that teaching and administration are being udepro- fessionalized.” Could you elaborate?

Being an effective teacher or administrator today requires more skill than ever before. Educators have to know more and be able to work in a variety of ways with a wide range of people - students, families, colleagues and communities. Pedagogical skills are vital but need to be complemented with strong people skills and understanding of the larger context. All professions, not just teaching, are facing more challenge to their authority and autonomy; this is one outcome, in my view, of having a more educated population. We need to ensure that the appropriate respect and support for ongoing learning by teachers go with this range of demands.

What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as deputy minister?

I still have a great deal to learn about education in Ontario. Readers interested in a more extended outline of my thinking about education policy can consult the talk I gave to the Canadian Education Association last fall (available through the CEA website). However, at this early stage I am thinking of three main areas of focus - improving student outcomes (again, with outcomes defined broadly - academic achievement, high school completion, well-rounded skills, citizenship orientation and so on); trying to reduce the gaps in achievement across the population and particularly for some groups of students; and building public confidence in public education. These goals - which I believe are broadly shared by many people across the system - can only be achieved through people working together, so another goal of mine is to foster strong, positive relationships among all the parties to education in Ontario. To this end I plan to be in schools on a regular basis so that I can stay grounded in the realities facing teachers and students.

Why did you decide to once again take a position in government after having decided to leave government and work in education research?

I am taking on the deputy’s role in Ontario for one reason - because I believe that I can help advance the important educational objectives outlined in my response to the previous question. Each time I leave government (this will be my fourth term working for a provincial government) I rediscover how much easier it is to stand outside and criticize than it is to make good things happen. Government is, in my experience, a very difficult environment in which to work, so I only want to work there if I believe that some vital positive things can and will be done. That was the case while I was deputy in Manitoba. I believe the Ontario government is deeply committed to making a positive difference in education. I did not see how I could decline their invitation to help with an agenda that is consistent with many of my own beliefs - and those of many educators.

Do you have any advice to the teacher federations with respect to having a positive influence on the public policy process?

Teacher federations face a difficult challenge. You have, of course, a responsibility to represent and act on behalf of your members in the short term. At the same time, we all recognize that the longterm welfare of the education system depends on the public’s perception that we are working together effectively for the benefit of children and families. The people of Ontario are entrusting their children to us every day, not to mention putting more than $15 billion per year into schools. We all have to show all the time that we take these trusts very seriously and that we truly appreciate our responsibility to act as guardians of and advocates for those children and the resources given to us. I am sure that the federations will, as they have in past, play an important role in this effort.