The End of Public Education

A timely article in 2019, but I originally wrote it in 2014:


What if public education was merely the result of the need
for factory workers in a newly industrialized society?  What
if education has never been anything more than an
expression of economic need?

I was directed to this interview about capitalism and education by the wise woman of twitter.  It always amazes me that intelligent people are able to see where society is going and can do nothing to avert the disaster.  History is rife with intellectuals warning of impending doom, but the doom happens anyway because the weight of social expectation crushes any individual insight.

You can find all sorts of people abolishing slavery before it finally turned into globalism and got hidden from sight in the third world.  Slavery was abolished and re-instituted for centuries, and still exists today because it provides an economic advantage to the rich.  If the rich can’t use you, then society is changed to suit.  What is worrying about that article (which you really should read) is that the moneyed class no longer has need of a large swath of society.  If the public education system was created to support industrialization, it’s about to lose that support as human capital becomes worthless.

“as automation and globalization renders whole swaths of the labour force useless to capital. .. From the perspective of capital, an ever-increasing portion of the population is no longer seen as a resource to be cultivated”

I believe that public education is one of the most powerful things we’ve ever created as a species.  It leverages more of our population to maximize their potential than anything else we’ve come up with (yes, even democracy, capitalism or free markets).  Even if it was slovenly economics that prompted it, the benefits of public education go well beyond making a few rich people richer.  What’s worrying about that interview is that David Blacker has pretty much seen the future as it will unravel, though there is little we can do to stop the social momentum we carry.

His description of schooling is sickeningly accurate:

“in cities and other places, my argument is not that schools are going to dry up and blow away, that we will stop having things called schools. In fact, we might have quite well-funded places called “schools.” Prisons are more expensive than schools. So I think even though the things are called schools, their internal nature is moving further away from citizenship goals, forget learning for its own sake. Those institutions, their level of funding may even increase. To do surveillance and warehousing… maintenance of a school-to-prison pipeline can be quite expensive. So I wouldn’t see an increase in funding of school systems and school employees and school buildings as any particular cause for optimism.”

This warehousing is already happening in Ontario education.  The learning to eighteen laws enacted in Ontario in 2006 ensure that students are warehoused in schools until they are eighteen years old by placing punitive limitations on them to ensure compliance (parents and students can be charged for not attending school).  An increasing amount of money is spent in Ontario education every year to try and cater to a vanishingly small percentage of students who would rather be elsewhere, but the warehouse is where they must stay.  I’d suggest that the edutainment and student engagement push in education also caters to this kind of thinking.

The real crush comes when governments decide to cut education even while expecting it to move from a training to a holding role.  It’s a no win situation for educators who are stuck between having to cater to high needs students who don’t want to be students at all and a system that wants to cut their pay, demand extracurriculars and increase class sizes.  It’s especially confusing when many teachers assume that their job is still one of teaching.  

The problem is that governments are treating schools more like prisons than they are schools, but when  you’re trying to game an economy designed around the devaluation of human capital by forcing kids to stay in school, the increasingly worthless people (that would be all of us) are the ones who lose.  The only political cost is the vilification of teachers, something many people in the general public are happy to do.  In the meantime we’re all trapped in a neoliberal agenda with no way out (unless you’re Iceland).

We’re not even arguing about the same thing any more, education isn’t about teaching people or training them for jobs, it’s about storing all that now worthless human capital.  If we accept that then the attack on teaching as a professional activity suddenly makes a very different kind of sense.

I’m a Sponge

One of my strengths as a teacher is my overdeveloped sense of empathy.  It’s also why I’m often exhausted at the end of a day.  The recent state of affairs in Ontario education has gotten to the point where I have to time my exposure to this negativity as it infects my thinking elsewhere.  I’m trying to balance the need to make political noise to stop the sociopaths in government with my own mental health.

The end of semester one happened and I came home one day hanging on by my fingernails.  As is typical in most Ontario classrooms, I have a staggeringly wide range of students.  My recent grade 9 class contained students who were functionally illiterate with others who are already operating two grades ahead of where they should be.  I’m somehow supposed to deliver meaningful, differentiated instruction to all twenty five of them.  This reaches peak pressure as the semester ends and these grade 9s, who have never learned in a semestered system before, struggled to understand that the course is ending and I won’t be their teacher any more.  When my wife saw the state of me she said, “you’re a sponge” soaking up all of this stress and negativity.

Chasing the strays and getting marks in is exhausting, and often simply an exercise in damage control rather than a learning opportunity.  Marking exams was also interesting.  I share all the theory tests we did throughout the semester online and can see when students make use of them in studying.  The vast majority of my grade 9s, 10s and 11s spent less than 20 minutes reviewing for exams.  Our class averages typically landed at about 60% with 1/4 of each class failing.  Even when you hand the actual exam questions over to students, a frustrating large number of them can’t be bothered to lift a finger to review it, though they all expect a good mark for it.

This is partly to do with the fact that we’re forced to do academic style exams to protect the academic style exam schedule, even though we’re an applied, skills driven course, but it also has to do with how modern students accept responsibility for their learning.  They are repeatedly conditioned not to take on this responsibility.  Attendance has become entirely optional – I have two students away on extended vacations at the beginning of semester two and I had many students with more than three weeks of absences in semester one.  In addition to lax attendance expectations, students know that wherever possible their learning is done for them, often in line with standardized testing.  This learning is neither individualized nor differentiated and does little to foster the life long learning that would genuinely assist students in the world beyond our classrooms.

I don’t usually look at the grades students are getting in other classes and without knowing I’m usually grading them similarly to their other grades in the building, but this semester I did look.  Grades are up across the board.  You’d be hard pressed to find a teacher that fails a student because they tend to get passed anyway in promotions meetings or given absurdly reduced expectations in a credit recovery class, so why pick the fight?  That sense of helplessness is becoming an epidemic in Ontario education as a remorseless political group with dwindling popularity continues to attack a system most of them never participated in.  I’m still ruminating on the connection between teacher efficacy and student learning outcomes.  I suspect countries like Finland (and Canada before this neo-conservative press) offer a high level of teacher efficacy which leads to higher standards and stronger students.  When the system thumps efficacy out of teachers, as it is right now, standards drop.  It’ll be interesting to see if the data supports this in the coming years.

The crushing weight of all of this squeezes the life out of me at semester’s end.  When it’s happening between intermittent strike days and the guy in charge of education (who was never in public education himself) repeatedly saying that we’re greedy and selfish, it all knocks me down yet another peg.

When I’m pressed under this kind of emotional weight, it colours my ability to assess the world around me.  Things that probably aren’t that bad appear to be, but it’s hard to see that.

Last month I wrote a piece trying to work out teacher pay.  I’m usually happy if a Dusty World post hits a thousand page views.  For a specialist blog on education, I think that’s a good result.  Easy Money is currently at just over thirty thousand page views and speaks to the curiosity that people have around the misinformation being spread in this political climate.  That our Ministry of Education produced these misleading numbers is yet another layer of frustration.  Teachers are still teachers if they are part time, on short term contract or away on sick leave, but our Ministry ignored all that and gave their political masters what they asked for – a misleading statistic that promotes their politics.  I wrote Easy Money to wrap my head around a more nuanced and detailed understanding of the subject.  That moment of over-attention chased me off blogging, which I’ve never done for views.  Some of the things people say to you if you dare to challenge their politics is truly nasty.  Dusty World has always been a place I can come and work out my thinking.  If others benefit from that then great, but its function is to help me reflect on my own practice, not generate page views.  Maybe in taking that back Dusty World can keep the darkness at bay in an Ontario drowning in deep blue rhetoric.

Being quiet while mad men try to burn down your profession and a vital public resource shouldn’t be an option for any Ontario educator.
Speak up, there are lots of ways to do it, but also look after yourself too.

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The Blueing of the Ninja part 2

I spent some sweaty hours this weekend de-blacking the Ninja.  The coolant got flushed as I was waiting for paint to dry.  With the fairings off I got more done than I intended.  I stripped the tank and repainted it, my first attempt and recovering the stripped back to blue paint.

Original Kawasaki Paint codes courtesy of Color Rite

I was able to find a metallic blue that would work with the Ninja original Candy Plasma Blue.  Going on it looks almost identical, but it dries a darker blue, a more royal blue, though since it’s metallic it pops like the original factory metallic paint does.  The paint I found was Rustoleum’s Metallic Cobalt Blue.  It’s readily available, I found it at Homedepot.

After laying a couple of coats of the new blue, I followed it up with a couple of coats of a gloss clear coat.  The picture of the tank on the right shows you what kind of finish you can get out of these basic tools.  It won’t satisfy a perfectionist, but at under $20 to paint the front fender and tank, it will satisfy your accountant.  I waxed it once everything set (I let it sit for half a day), and it looks pretty sharp.  I’ve driven it 200kms so far this week since and no scuffs or scratches on the paint, so it’s pretty tough too, even after an impromptu ride through a driving hail/thunder storm.

I could agonize over stockness here, but I don’t think I will.  The vision I’ve got for the bike isn’t stock anyway, but it’s a far cry from the flat black bike I started with.  I’m still working out the orange for the frame.  I’ve got a gloss red and a gloss yellow and intend to mix my own.  The only oranges available seem to be traffic cone inspired (see the pics below), I’m going for a burnt orange as an opposing colour to the royal blue.

From the pictures you can see that the blues are mighty close, though the camera does flatten the differences a bit.  When you’re up close you can see where the new paint is slightly darker, though just as rich and metallic.  With the clear coat on top it’s silky smooth to the touch and polishes up nicely with wax.  I’ve been riding in rain all week and everything now beads off where it used to just get wet and sticky on the flat black.

The back end is still stock blue, the tank is the new metallic cobalt  blue
This is a closeup of the seat fairing – the front is the new blue, the back is
the old blue – pretty damn close – matches the spring nicely too
The headlight and front fairing is stock blue, the front wheel
fender and tank are the new blue
Another angle on the tank.  I taped off the filler cap and silver surround,
it came off clean.  I wiped any overspray before clear coating everything

After and before – the metallic blue covers up the bruises well, and where
the bike was already blue, you’ve got a strong undercoat that supports
the top colour.  It took a couple of extra coats to cover the bruises.
While I’ve got the fairings off to do the frame, I’ll have another go at the blue on the big front fairings.  It’s a time consuming, tiring process taking that black off, so the fairings might be a while longer before I get them done, then I can finally call my beaten up black bike blue again.


What a ride down the Appalachians would look like next summer (for the solar eclipse!)

Elora, ON

4 h 19 min (286 km)
Entering the United States of America (New York)
4 h 19 min (286 km)
Entering Pennsylvania
3 h 11 min (224 km)
State College, PA
37 min (40.0 km)
Entering Maryland
Entering West Virginia
Entering Virginia
Passing through West Virginia
Entering Virginia
2 h 59 min (233 km)
Entering Tennessee
1 h 15 min (82.9 km)
Deals Gap
Cherokee, NC
54 min (51.1 km)
Entering Virginia
8 h 6 min (553 km)
Lexington, VA
Entering West Virginia
Entering Virginia
Passing through West Virginia
7 h 3 min (539 km)
Entering Pennsylvania
Williamsport, PA
3 h 38 min (274 km)
Entering New York
3 h 38 min (274 km)
Batavia, NY
Entering Canada (Ontario)
3 h 44 min (243 km)
Elora, ON

with hotel stops
might be good for a couple of days in the Smokey Mountains.


6 h 29 min (447 km)
1.  Clearfield, PA
5 h 27 min (390 km)
2.  Inn at Mountain Quest
6 h 41 min (518 km)
3.  Knoxville, TN
1 h 34 min (94.2 km)
3.5   Deal’s Gap – Tail of the Dragon
2 h 25 min (162 km)
4.  Ashville, NC
8 h 26 min (581 km)
5.  Harrisburg, VA
5 h 39 min (437 km)
6.  South Williamsport, PA
7 h 3 min (496 km)


I’m enjoying the Ninja and I hope to track day with it this year at some point, but I’m also keen to expand my two wheel experience.  To that end it would be nice to have a bike that is a bit more drop friendly and willing to go off paved road.  In keeping with my ’70s heritage I love the idea of a scrambler: an all-rounder that is stripped and ready for everything from road to off it.

Triumph makes a Scrambler model based on ‘stripped down desert bikes with high exhausts’ (that don’t get blocked in dirt, mud and water).  But if you head over to the Triumph page you get the sense that the new Scrambler is more a hipster man purse than a scrambler in the real sense.

I was hooked on adventure bikes but I’m finding them a bit much.  I got an ADV magazine I hadn’t seen before recently, and after reading the third straight piece about how adventure touring had produced a mystical understanding of reality I threw up in my mouth.  What used to be a Mondo Enduro style lark has turned into pretentious evangelism.  Why do people always have to fuck up what they love with hyperbole?  A DIY scrambler that I can get muddy and fall off of without worrying about plastic is my latest crush.  The video at the bottom with whacky Auzzies giving it the welly in mud is much more my thing.

Building a scrambler by stripping down a street bike and readying it for anything is an appealing project.  I found a 1986 Yamaha YZ Radian for sale.  The Radian is a naked sport bike with a detuned engine with better mid-range power, ideal for working in less than ideal traction situations.  This particular Radian seems well cared for and is only going for about $1000 (Canadian).

I’d strip off the fenders, shorten the seat to a single, lighten up the bike (which is already pretty light) and swap out the lights for LEDs.  I’d also throw some frame sliders and upgrade the shocks for heavy duty use and cover the fronts with dust covers.  I think I’d keep the cool chrome, analogue instruments.  The muffler would get the high mounted low profile scrambler treatment and last but not least would be some somewhat knobbly tires that would work both on road and off road.

With all those changes I think I could strip the bike down to about the 400lb mark. 

Metzeler Tourance tires,
look the part
and go everywhere!

The point of a scrambler is to ride it anywhere and not worry about it.  It hearkens back to days before motorcycles were penned into tiny niches by marketing types more intent on selling a lifestyle choice than a machine you could make your own.  At the very least, it’d be hard for me to make it look like a week long trip has provided me with enlightenment on something so low brow.

Some Scrambler Links:

How to build a scrambler (EXIF)

Aftershock (The Bike Shed)

Aftershock – Sydney from Sydney Cafe Racers on Vimeo.

It’s Better In The Wind – Short Film from Scott Toepfer on Vimeo.


I know teachers get edgy when considering business theory for use in the classroom, but gamestorming in class seems like a sure thing. The problem with it is the breaking down of conventions around learning. We structure our classes on this stuff. Would a good gamestorm be acceptable in English class, or is it too artsy? Would it be acceptable in art class, or is it too text driven? Would it be ok in a music class if it wasn’t entirely musical? That these questions get asked gives you an idea about how far we have come from playing with our ideas. We’ve cut thinking into arbitrarily compartmented piece work.

I love looking at Leonardo’s sketch books. Write about it when it fits, sketch when it doesn’t. When I look at those, I wonder what a modern Leonardo would do with modern media. Where we used to be limited by word and graphic on paper, we can now create virtual 3d spaces and plaster them with images, sounds, text, video, some, none or all of it interactive. I wonder how well a universal mind like that would operate in such a rich media environment and then finding itself in our school system with it’s little buckets of knowledge, none of which should ever mix.

I know this is beginning to change. Being able to differentiate instruction and accept multiple paths to proof of broader understanding is happening, but slowly, in school. I still see (usually) older teachers resisting the mash up, saying it doesn’t respect the discipline of the… um, discipline.

In the meantime, I keep asking myself; how can I see that they know what they’re doing without falling back into the same old habits? The text trap is the worst of all, it carries with it a patina of academia. If it’s in text, it must be academically rigorous and appropriately difficult. Anyone who still thinks this hasn’t seem the time, energy and creativity my students have put into a media project.
Here is a copy of one of my favorite audio assignments from the beginning of the grade 10 media course. The instructions were loose (1-2 mins, tell an audio story, multiple sound tracks, original content only – no internet pilfering). This is only sound, yet what a story unfolds. This medium is all but ignored in typical school. Imagine being able to read an essay while hearing student spoken comments at various times – or accepting a sound/graphic mashup of brainstorming, instead of just text. The software exists for this to happen now, but the urge isn’t there because we keep retreating to our buckets.
Instead of having the technology push us out of bad habits, why not let some new habits push the technology? We keep seeing tentative steps towards mixed media (I’m thinking Prezi, Ning and Googledocs), but no bold changes in how we think. The ultimate change would be to forget what 200 years of scientific compartmentalizing has done and kick open possibility in thinking.

Special Education

Near the end of my teacher’s college program, Nipissing put on an assistive learning tools workshop. We were all duly wowed by the latest version of Dragonspeak, the latest in PDAs and how they could be used in learning, and a surprising array of speech, numeracy, literacy and subject specific learning tools. It was an all day seminar, and it really had an impact on me. It also made me question the intent of all of this fantastic equipment.

Over and over, it was targeted at at-risk/below grade students who struggled with whatever the technology was supposed to help them overcome. Dragonspeak, there is no doubt, helps students see language in terms of the written word, but why does it need to be so carefully guarded from the general population? If a student struggling with literacy could use Dragonspeak to gain a foothold on something beyond their reach, couldn’t it just as easily help a group of media students get their ideas down in solid form while they were storyboarding a video? Couldn’t it assist a gifted writer who wants to try a different way of getting over writer’s block? These people aren’t anywhere near failing, but if we’re only using assistive tech to help those failing expectations, I think we’re wasting a valuable opportunity.
Those many learning tools we saw that day impressed upon me just how helpful technology could be in learning, I just didn’t understand why it all had to be so Special focused. Any one of those tools could help anyone learn. Learning isn’t easy, for anyone, it’s a challenge to stay focused, it’s a challenge to make the time and space to write, even if you think of yourself as a writer. It’s a challenge to get work in on time, even if you’re a top student. I watch excellent students in the form of teachers doing their Masters struggling with this very issue all the time.
In my senior year of high school, my grandfather died, our family pet died and shortly thereafter my father was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident. Always a B student (why draw unnecessary attention to yourself), my grades slipped, assignments weren’t handed in and things went from mediocre to worse. My teachers berated me for time management, I was not working “to expectations”. I didn’t tell anyone about what was going on at home, I was trying to hold it (and a shaky family) together as the oldest son. I’d never been special enough to get a special education, and the standard one wasn’t fitting now. I squeaked out of high school and it took me 3 years to get my self together and take another run at it in order to get grade 13 and go to university.
Whenever I have a student, regardless of what their Individual Education Plan does or doesn’t say, suddenly miss work, or class, I don’t start grading them in terms of expectations, I ask myself what’s going on in the other 99% of their lives that has little or nothing to do with my classroom. Sometimes I ask, sometimes they tell me, often they don’t, but I don’t take that as license to grade them to Ministry expectations.
Dealing with the system now as a parent for the first time has only enforced my understanding of how streaming generally works. My son is lucky in having 2 educated, very motivated and able parents who advocate for him strenuously. His challenges at school aren’t overwhelming, but many students face much worse obstacles, and don’t have the support at home to take on the system effectively. On a purely experiential basis, we could as easily stream academic/applied and essential into stable family/broken family/no-visible family, and you’d find a startling correlation between our current “academic” system of measurement and an often ignored key indicator of school success.
Differentiating, student centred learning and assistive technology all aim to produce an education that helps a student on as much of an individual basis as we can manage in a system that often has too many people and not enough money. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have Special Education, it would all be special education, in the meantime, you have to ask yourself, how often have you had grades dictated by a lack of access to assistive technology or poor student performance due to their circumstances beyond school?
Maybe one day education will just be special, but I don’t see that happening as long as we set up static, specific expectations and expect students to achieve them like automatons. An education has surprisingly little to do with building a better person. It’s a biological process, deeply tied to our physical development, circumstances and opportunities, but we still want to assess it as though it were a Victorian industrial process.

Extending the Canadian Motorcycle Riding Season: Snow Bikes!

The idea of a snowmobile conversion for a motorcycle keeps popping up everywhere this winter.  Timbersled makes just such a thing.  It’s seven grand Canadian for the system plus another fifteen hundred for the fitting kit.  The Husqvarna FE501S is a road legal dual sport bike that the kit fits.  They can be found for about twelve grand.  It’s a rich man’s game but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about it.  For about twenty grand Canadian ($14,900 US) I’d have a year ’round off road specialist that would also get down the road when needed.  The thought of pulling up to a RIDE spotcheck in a blizzard on a plated version of one of these makes me quite happy.  Officer: ‘Uh, what’s that?’

The KLX250 I tried a while back was so slow with me on it that I felt unsafe on roads.  I couldn’t coax it to 100km/hr which meant I had a row of traffic behind me even on country back roads.  The Husky weighs less and has almost three times more horsepower.  Keeping up with traffic on back roads would not be a problem.  Those capabilities mean it’d carry me and some camping gear deep into the countryside in the summer while also being snow-bike convertible in the winter, all for twenty five hundred bucks less than a BMW GS.

A new snowmobile costs sixteen grand or more and only works for a few months of year if you’re lucky.  From that point of view a road ready enduro bike with a Timbersled system looks like a more useful and cost effective approach to riding in the snow (and everything else). 

Timbersled Snow Conversion System

The Husqvarna FE 501S Dual Sport Motorcycle

In the snow!

In the desert!

On forest trails!  All on the same bike.

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