Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fix the teacher? What about society

One of the five items in the BC education plan is to improve "teacher quality". Evidently Minister Abbott, after his many visits to schools and conversations with teachers, has come to the conclusion that there is a "teacher quality" problem. This despite overwhelming evidence of the negative impact on educational outcomes from external factors, such as socio-economic status (see, for example, this fact sheet from the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx).

Noticeably, the government appears to be ignoring these "out of school" factors on student learning. There was no response to the recent announcement that BC's child poverty levels increased last year to over 16%. The annual report card on Child Poverty produced by First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition also found:
  • In 2009, nearly half of the poor children in B.C. lived in families with at least one adult working full-time throughout the year.
  • The poverty rate for children of lone-parent mothers fell to a record low 24.2 per cent. The poverty rate for children in two-parent families rose to 15 per cent.
  • Low-income two-parent families had incomes on average of $14,200 below the poverty line.
  • The poorest 50 per cent of families with children in B.C. had less than one-quarter of all the personal income of families with children.
  • An estimated investment of about $900 million is required to bring the incomes of low-income families with children in B.C. up to the poverty line.
  • The poverty gap — or the difference between the incomes of all poor people in BC and the poverty line — was $3.872 billion in 2009.
(see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2011/11/23/bc-child-poverty.html)

There is nothing in the "bcedplan" that addresses child poverty. The assumption appears to be that no matter what the student population and the issues that impact student learning, just fixing the teacher will be a magic bullet to overcome every other aspect of a child's life that impedes their ability to learn. No teacher can overcome the myriad of issues that poverty brings to the child learner, which include:
  • inadequate nutrition
  • stress and anxiety
  • poor health
  • lack of role models
  • no home support for school work, study habits
  • safety issues
  • lack of cognitive stimulation/experiences
In the US, where child poverty is above 20%, the "fix the teacher" mentality has been widely implemented, with the associated policies of merit pay, elimination of job protection rights, and teacher evaluation based on student test scores. Yet US students are doing no better. These policies seek to divert policymakers and politicians from addressing societal issues and provide an easy scapegoat for poor educational outcomes.

An American Superintendent from Texas, John Kuhn, recently addressed this failure of US policy in an article in the Washington Post, and called on the same level of "accountability" for addressing social issues as teachers face for educational outcomes:

"Today some 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Are we going to pretend forever that it is acceptable to ignore the needs of children outside the schoolhouse and blame teachers and principals for everything that happens inside?

As soon as the data shows that the average black student has the same opportunity to live and learn and hope and dream in America as the average white student, and as soon as the data shows that the average poor kid drinks water just as clean and breathes air just as pure as the average rich kid, then educators like me will no longer cry foul when this society sends us children and says: Get them all over the same hurdle.

And so I as an educator now say to a nation exactly what it has said to me for years: No excuses! Just get results. " (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/a-superintendent-calls-school-reformers-bluff/2011/12/11/gIQABKBXoO_blog.html?tid=sm_btn_tw)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

bcedplan: a return to 19th century schooling?

It is ironic that the moniker of "21st century learning" has been used to describe the recent school reform movement in the US and Canada. Because in fact, this movement has, as one of its core principles, the notion of "school choice" - a decidedly 19th century educational policy.

Although state funded schooling existed sporadically in the 19th century, universal public education is really a product of the early twentieth century, with the introduction of mandatory school attendance. Compulsory schooling laws were introduced following confederation and were in place in every province in Canada by 1933.

But prior to compulsory schooling, throughout most of the 19th century, western nations including Canada had a great degree of "choice" and "flexibility". Schooling was a combination of market based services (private/religious/grammar schools), charitable schools for the poor, and home schooling (non attendance). Choice for the few who could afford it.

The rationale for compulsory schooling and the provision of state funded schools was not always for the best reasons. In fact, at its heart was industry's need for a literate workforce. Mass schooling also incorporated racist notions of the need for the state to impose the dominant cultural norms on immigrants (in public schools) and First Nations (via residential schools).

Yet as the twentieth century progressed, the introduction of other universal social programs (unemployment insurance, public health insurance) and the post-war "social contract" brought notions of equity, fairness, and the opportunity for social mobility to the public school system.

This culminated in the progressive changes in the post World War Two period, when a massive expansion of the public system coincided with a new social contract based on principles of equality and fairness. For schooling this meant the rights of every child to an equal educational opportunity - regardless of race, class, gender or location. Thus was born the neighbourhood comprehensive school - ensuring each child in every locality had access to the full breadth of school programs funded by the state. The inclusion of children with special needs through a Charter of Rights case ensured that mental and physical disability, as well, was not a reason to segregate or offer substandard opportunities. This took place in British Columbia beginning in 1945 with the Cameron Commission, which set up provincial funding to deal with vast regional disparities when schools relied on local taxation.

The current reform movement, with its focus on competition, market driven systems, false accountability, choice and flexibility, is the antithesis of an equitable and fair opportunity for every child. Rather than focusing on all children, it focuses on individual parents' ability to "choose" the "best" for "their" child. It is a system with winners and losers. Right neighborhood. Ability to bus to a school of choice. Access to special fee-based programs. Even a simplified system of "shopping" for schools via state mandated testing to produce school rankings (via the Fraser Institute and the Foundation Skills Assessment).

All of it is a slow and steady return to the Dickensian days of 19th century schooling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

BC Education Minister announces 3% funding cut

BC Education Minister George Abbott announced yesterday this year's education funding and a change to the funding formula. The announcement indicates that the change to this year's funding over last year is .06%. With inflation at 3.2%, this represents a three percent funding cut.

This is no surprise. It is business as usual. For pretty much twenty years the budgets for school districts have received slow and steady cuts. In constant dollars, funding in 1991 was almost $9 billion. Today it is under $5 billion. These cuts have led to significant service cuts over these two decades.

The Minister also announced changes to the funding formula. In a "net zero" framework, he acknowledged that the funding changes would bring "some winners" and "some losers". There are increases to communityLink funding (often used for lunch programs in low income neighborhood schools) and increases to rural districts. There will also be budget protection for districts experiencing declining enrollment.

What does this mean? Urban, expanding districts are likely to see budget reductions. Districts like Surrey will continue to house thousands of students in portables. Districts like my own, Victoria, will experience small job losses and program cuts. It will be another year of the slow erosion of public education.

The Minister claims he has consulted with Districts about the need for changes to the funding formula. I wonder what he means by this? What I know is that for years Districts have been upset about unfunded expenses, rising inflation without corresponding rising core funding, lack of stability (one year budgets), and expanded mandates (such as the carbon trust). The funding announcement does nothing to address any of these issues.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not the change we need.

The announcement can be found here:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What's in the billions? The money stolen from BC kids

Last week, government representatives walked away from the table to discuss how to remedy the government's illegal legislation - Bill 28. The legislation eliminated class size and composition levels, and ratios for specialist teachers.

It is shameful that Minister Abbott and his government have walked away from talks to restore services to children and schools in the wake of their illegal legislation, bill 28.

This government has stolen $3 billion from the public education system in the decade since the illegal legislation was introduced. BC Supreme Court Justice Griffin found in her ruling that the government "saved"  $275 million per year (in 2002 dollars) as a result of the illegal legislation. Surrey school board numbers confirm that the amount is now likely $330 million per year to restore services (about right, given inflation). Teachers simply want this funding and the guaranteed services restored.

Greedy? I'd call it reasonable and fair.

The illegal legislation eliminated guaranteed class sizes for every child in BC. It also eliminated guaranteed minimal levels of support for students with special needs through class composition requirements and minimal staffing ratios for specialist teachers. Every school child benefited when collective agreements guaranteed access to teacher librarians, counselors and special education teachers.

As a result of the loss of these guaranteed services, there are now 3500 fewer teachers province wide and over 12,000 classes that exceed School Act limits.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

High performing school system? Trust your teachers

I don't usually post bargaining reports from the BCTF here directly, but this week we had Dr. Charlie Naylor, a BCTF researcher, give an excellent presentation on the connection between teacher autonomy and high performing school systems. The presentation was in reaction to BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) bargaining proposals that would drastically reduce teacher autonomy and professionalism.

Dr. Naylor has written two responses to "discussion documents" published by BCPSEA. I highly recommend them. They are available here:

Here is an excerpt from the report from the bargaining table:

The main point that Dr. Naylor presented was that in high performing school systems, teachers are afforded more autonomy and there is less focus on standardized testing, accountability measures with consequences, and a narrow preoccupation with literacy and numeracy. He discussed how the academic literature on quality teaching and learning shows that the best performing systems are where teachers are treated as professionals, like with other professions. In the low performing systems, teachers are treated as employees, with a heavy focus on managerialism. He also stated that if the education system is part of producing a society that generates critical thinkers and problem solvers, then the teaching profession must be afforded the opportunity to model these skills in teaching—the adults in society must themselves use critical thought to address issues such as how best to teach a particular group of children. This is in opposition to the proposals that BCPSEA has made, which focus on principal control of many aspects of teaching, such as our professional development and our autonomy in practice. He finished by saying that the approaches BCPSEA and the government are proposing are not supported by the literature, and they do not even refer to research in their background papers—only to legal rulings. These are not evidence-based arguments for changing the education system, rather they are “positional.”

Dr. Naylor used several examples to make his points. For instance, he contrasted Britain, which narrowed autonomy and increased accountability measures which has now plummeted in performance, to Finland, which provides a high degree of professional autonomy and has radically improved performance.

He suggested that a real “conversation” would be an informed debate based on the literature, rather than one model imposed from one side. He referenced Ontario, where the government “did not impose a forced model imposed by principals.” He also commented that in both Ontario and Alberta, change came with significant amounts of funding to ensure resources are there to enable the changes. He finished by saying “you don’t have a conversation when you put this kind of language on the table…What I see in your proposal is an imposition of a professional growth program, implemented by principals in schools.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teachers read message to George Abbott

Minister of Education George Abbott has been touring the province visiting schools. This is a good thing. I remember in 2005 a Victoria teacher running into then Education Minister Shirley Bond and asking when she had last visited a classroom, to which she answered it was when she was in school herself!

I hope that Mr. Abbott is listening to teachers' messages. I know during his visit at Central Middle School, teachers questioned him about the net zero mandate, services for students with special needs, and class size - issues that are important to teachers and that we feel are critical to maintaining our excellent public education system.

This week, at a visit to Caulfeild Elementary in West Vancouver, teachers read the following message to Mr. Abbott:

"The teachers of Caulfeild would like you to know that we are disappointed and disheartened by the government’s recent attacks on B.C. public school teachers.  By the very nature of what we do, we are caring, diligent, progressive and conscientious people who, in the face of the negative tone of the Ministry’s Education Plan, continue to work for the betterment of B.C. children and public education.

Why does this government continue to strip the “profession” from teaching? The “Professional Teaching Act” is now the “Teaching Act”. The backwards movement at the Provincial bargaining table attempts to strip our contract to the point that government officials and Administrators dictate our professional development and negate any autonomy in the classroom. The message this sends is simply that we cannot be trusted to conduct ourselves as professionals and do not deserve to be treated as such.

We believe that BCPSEA’s application to take back 15% of our salary and benefits for work “not done” is insulting.  We at Caulfeild have never put in more hours of our own time, after school, in the evenings and on weekends.  We are dedicated professionals who have worked above and beyond to implement our iDEC program. We don’t like to say no. We want to be successful. We are highly trained and passionate teachers who continue to teach, assess and inform parents of student progress in the usual manner.  

How are B.C. teachers supposed to make ends meet with yet another zero salary increase? Perhaps rather than coaching or sponsoring teams and clubs on our personal time, we should re-claim those hours for ourselves and our families and perhaps tutor and subsidize our incomes by an extra $400 a week. Many teachers  have a second job to make ends meet.

Where is the incentive for us to continue professional development when we aren’t considered professionals? Why does the government ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling on Bills 27 and 28? How does cutting funding for teacher-librarians support a need for increased literacy? Why are West Van parent volunteers expected to pick up the slack?  What are the less fortunate districts supposed to do?  This district, despite the successes you will see today, is underfunded by the government.  Fee-paying international students help make up much of your government’s shortfall.  Without them, much of what you see today would not be possible.  Our PAC’s also raise money to make up for your government’s lack of funding.  Radical change is not what we need now.  We need stability and proper funding. "

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

LRB dismisses BCPSEA application

The latest political maneouvre of the BC government via its bargaining agent, BCPSEA, has failed.

In an apparent effort to discredit teachers and split them from their union, BCPSEA made application to the Labour Relations Board to vary the Essential Services order so that teachers would be required to complete report cards and the BCTF would be required to pay back 15% of wages and benefits.

The Labour Relations Board rejected both parts. With respect to report cards, the LRB acknowledged that teachers were continuing to assess students and provide feedback to parents. BCPSEA failed to provide evidence that parents were not receiving this information.

With respect to the fine to the union, the LRB said:

“...there is no dispute teachers are continuing to work their regular or normal hours during Phase 1 of the BCTF job action.  They are not performing certain non-essential duties, but there is no assertion teachers are working only 85% of their scheduled time while receiving 100% of pay.  Rather, the assertion is they are working their regular hours teaching but not performing non-essential duties, as permitted by the Order.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

19th century labour relations for 21st century education?

In a surprising move yesterday, BCPSEA tabled a package that intensifies the attacks and concessions in teacher bargaining. BCPSEA now wants to remove job security provisions, fair access to assignments and positions, teacher autonomy in professional development and classroom teaching practices, and due processes in teacher evaluation and discipline.

In essence, BCPSEA want exactly what the Tea Party governors in the US are doing through legislation - the virtual elimination of rights for employees and almost total control for management in most areas of the employment relationship.

This 19th century model of labour relations, which pre-dates widespread unionization, is referred to in the legal world as the "master/servant" relationship. The employer, in effect, has control over most aspects of the employee's work. Master/servant Acts in British Commonwealth legal systems were predicated on obedience and loyalty from the employee to their employer As Wikipedia describes them: "These Acts are generally regarded as heavily biased towards employers, designed to discipline employees and repress the "combination" of workers in trade unions."

Imposition of this type of relationship would effectively de-professionalize teaching. It is an approach being pursued vigourously in the United States, where teachers have less and less ability to meet the individual needs of students as they are forced to conform with new standards, focus on testing rather than creativity and problem solving, and increasingly have fewer and fewer rights to negotiate collectively. Renowned Professor of Education from Stanford University, Linda Darling Hammond, described it this way: "Some policymakers argue that we should eliminate requirements for teacher training, stop paying teachers for gaining more education, let anyone enter teaching, and fire those later who fail to raise student test scores. And efforts like those in Wisconsin to eliminate collective bargaining create the prospect that salaries and working conditions will sink even lower, making teaching an unattractive career for anyone with other professional options."  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/darling-hammond-us-vs-highest-achieving-nations-in-education/2011/03/22/ABkNeaCB_blog.html)

BCPSEA wants teachers to be regularly subject to "expectations, directives and requirements" in many aspects of their functioning. What is sometimes couched in language of "support" (especially in the Ministry BC Education Plan), is in fact a set of employer mandated requirements about how a teacher teaches. Rather than respecting the professional opinion of teachers, BCPSEA wants teachers to be subject to directives of the employer in many areas of their work, or else be subject to dismissal. Such an environment of control will put a chill on teachers and reduce creativity, variety and adaptation to student needs.

In contrast, one of the best performing school systems in the world, Finland, takes a completely opposite approach to teachers. It is a competitive profession to enter. Teachers have a very high degree of autonomy. Teachers are well paid and respected, akin to doctors and lawyers. Darling Hammond describes this contrast as well, from her attendance at the Summit on Teaching:

"The contrasts to the American attitude toward teachers and teaching could not have been more stark. Officials from countries like Finland and Singapore described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors -- where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together – engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials."

So why is BC following the American route? Why 19th century labour relations? Why is the government and Trustees, through their bargaining agent BCPSEA, trying to get massive concessions in bargaining, reduce teacher salaries, reduce teacher autonomy and demoralize teachers?

And in the same vein of reasoning, why are they not addressing the very real issues that we do have - chronic underfunding, stagnating salaries, inadequate time for preparation and assessment, earthquake prone schools, child poverty,...and the list goes on. There are many areas for improvement. Neither BCPSEA nor the provincial government is addressing any of them.

As one teacher asked, why are they bullying, not bargaining?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Change sweeps across many BC school Boards

My home district of Victoria was just one of many to see a wave of change in the school trustee elections yesterday. Three incumbent trustees were defeated by three newcomers - all three endorsed by the Labour Council and the local teachers' association. All three newcomers are advocates against cuts and in support of smaller class sizes and full funding. Four of my own "picks" were elected - Catherine Alpha, Edith Loring Kuhanga, Deborah Nohr and Diane McNally. Results for Victoria, Sooke and Saanich are available here: http://www.cfax1070.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3883%3Amainlocal-news-template&catid=45%3Amainlocal-news&Itemid=155#.Tsi0P5BhPU4.facebook

But Victoria was not alone. In Burnaby, the reactionary Parents Voice, running on a platform opposing a new homophobia policy, received less than 3% of the vote. This demonstrates that the anti-gay message they espoused was not what Burnaby voters support. Instead, progressive trustees swept the Burnaby Board.

In Langley, the Board shifted from a progressive minority to a progressive majority. This will be a welcome change in a district plagues with mismanagement and financial problems.

New progressive trustees were elected in Kamloops, Maple Ridge, Delta, Mission, Vernon and Kootenay Columbia.

In Cowichan, the five candidates from CAPE (Community Alliance for Public Education) were all elected, creating a majority on the Board. Look to Cowichan to be a leader in the coming months to fight for better funding for schools. Trustee Edith Haythornthwaite is one of BC's most progressive educational leaders, and she will now be working in a majority on her Board.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the loss of COPE candidates in Vancouver, and particularly Jane Bouey, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ within schools.

Also disappointing was the continuation of the Surrey Education First slate. The progressive Surrey Civic Coalition was only able to maintain their existing seat.

Many trustees were under scrutiny for their role in the recent contract dispute between teachers and the bargaining agent, BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA). But many also know that BCPSEA is directed by school trustees and government in a "co-governance" model. This means support for a "net zero" mandate and a desire to make major attacks on teachers' collective agreements have also come directly from trustees.

The chair of BCPSEA, elected from among trustee representative, Melanie Joy, almost lost her seat. She won by a mere 50 votes against two contenders who split the remaining vote. She has the support of only 41% of her electorate.

The chair of the BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA), Michael McEvoy, was re-elected, but slipped from sixth to seventh place.

With this change in the air, hopefully a new set of trustees will bring a renewed vigor to the fight for full funding  for school Boards. And hopefully they will push government and BCPSEA to come back to the bargaining table with a real mandate to bargain.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Victoria Trustee candidates - My voting card

School Trustees matter. Whether you have children or not, Trustees make decisions that impact your local community - from management of school lands, to direct educational programs for school age children, to integrated community education services for all ages. And the children who grow up in our communities are the future electorate and neighbours - what and how we teach today impacts our communities of today and tomorrow.

So how to decide? Here is my Report Card on the Trustee candidates for Greater Victoria. I am voting for five candidates: Catherine Alpha, David Bratzer, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Diane McNally and Deborah Nohr.

Catherine Alpha:Consistently voted against the Superintendent's report on class organization when over 300 classes are set above the legislated limits. Supported, campaigned and voted for a needs budget.

David Bratzer: Did an excellent expose on the failed "Stantec Report" commissioned by the Board to simply "cut and paste" rationales for determining school needs based on "efficiency" rather than student learning. Opposed K/1 split classes. Regularly attends Board meetings and does the work to understand Board decision making.

Edith Loring-Kuhanga: Comes from the Saanich Board where she supported and voted for a needs budget. Consistent advocate for full funding and smaller class sizes and support for all students.

Diane McNally: Tireless advocate for the needs and rights of children. Former teacher and advocate for Reading Recovery and individualized one-on-one instruction to meet student learning needs.

Deborah Nohr: Another tireless advocate who has worked for years to improve learning conditions in schools, particularly around class size and class composition. Has worked with school based Parent Advisory Councils and will bring true transparency to Board decision making processes. Former co-chair and founding member of the Victoria Public Education Coalition, and active member of United for Education.

I will be "plumping" my vote - only voting for the candidates I want. Although a voter can choose up to nine, it is strategic to vote for only those candidates you really want to see win.

I am not voting for eight of the nine incumbent Trustees and I strongly believe it is time for change.

In the past decade the Victoria Board has closed seven schools, sold (and long term leased) school properties, cut countless positions at the Board resulting in program cuts, reduced funding for schools (school budgets) and libraries, voted to increase their own salaries in the face of budget cuts and presided over increasing class sizes and composition. They have done little to advocate for Victoria students and have instead simply implemented cuts passed down from the Ministry. Only one incumbent, Catherine Alpha, is getting my vote because of her determined fight to improve classroom conditions by voting against the class organization report.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Is Bill 33 discriminatory?

The Victoria Confederacy of Parent Advisory Councils (VCPAC) has taken the position that Bill 33 is discriminatory. In addition, they lobbied the Greater Victoria School District to refrain from publishing statistics on how many classes exceed the limits in Bill 33 of more than three students with special needs. Prior to this year, Victoria has reported every year that over 300 classes exceed these limits.

The VCPAC set of questions to Trustee candidates running for the Board included this question:

"VCPAC’s position on limiting the number of students of any particular classification from being included in a classroom is that it is discriminatory. If the classification was ethnicity, VCPAC believes that everyone would recognize the practice for what it truly is; prejudice. Do you believe that the practice of discriminating against a group of students for the purpose of lobbying the government for additional funding is justified? Based on your answer, how can the publishing of statistics about classrooms that have more than three students with individual education plans be acceptable?"

It saddens me terribly that VCPAC takes this position. Unwittingly, they are supporting fewer resources for schools and students, and fewer opportunities for those students who need them the most. Moreover, they are suggesting that parents and the public be denied the information about the class organization in their schools.


At the heart of the error is a failure to distinguish between equity and equality. I believe that every student deserves an equal opportunity to be successful. The reality is that what each student needs to be successful is different. What a student with Autism needs is different from what a student who is gifted needs. Some students require supports that cost more money, some require less. Some students come to our schools living in poverty, and some come with many resources provided by their parents and families. Funding should not be equal - it should be targeted. It should be organized to ensure that every student gets adequate funding for their particular needs. This will be different for different students.

It is a mistake to think that an equal amount of resources should be directed towards each student. Students who have been designated with a physical or learning disability deserve extra. They deserve additional resources to ensure that by the end of their schooling, they have had an equal opportunity to be successful. If we acknowledge that students learn at different rates and in different ways, then we must acknowledge that it will take different amounts of resources to educate each child.

When teachers had "class composition" limits in their collective agreement, this was to ensure adequate resources for those students who were identified through testing as requiring additional resources. Teachers work on average 49 hours per week. If 10 of those hours are available for preparation, assessment and assistance to students who require extra support, individualized lessons, and more one-on-one teacher time, then it makes a big difference if the teacher has three of those students in a class versus nine. If there are three students requiring additional support, the teacher has 3 hours per week to devote to each student. If there are nine students requiring additional support, the teacher has 1 hour per week per student. Thus, placing a "limit" on the class composition has one sole purpose - to ensure a minimal standard for each student requiring additional support.

When those limits are exceeded, that support is not there. The teacher can't simply find more and more hours in a week. The result is that each student suffers. This is what is happening in the 300 classes that are over the limit every year in Victoria schools. Teacher time is a finite resource, and when a teacher has more students to teach, or more students with additional needs to teach, the allocation of time per student decreases.

If the limit of three students per class were actually observed, there would be more classes, with more teachers. Every child in the entire system would benefit.

Resources in school systems should not be assigned equally to every student. They should be organized to prioritize resources to those students who require additional assistance and extra planning and time. This is not "equal", but it is the most "equitable".

Is this discriminatory? Not in the sense that racism or sexism is discriminatory, as the VCPAC suggests. Its purpose is not to further disenfranchise those already behind in learning. In fact it is the opposite. Its purpose is to ensure that those who come to school requiring more resources to be successful automatically have those resources.

Is this "prejudice"? Absolutely not. It is differential treatment for the purpose of enhancing services to those who need additional learning resources. Without such differential treatment, students with special needs would not be successful and would not have equal and fair opportunity to an education. This differential treatment is for the very purpose of eliminating prejudicial treatment with respect to access to a full and complete education.

Prior to the 1980's, children with special needs were segregated into separate schools. When parents first contested this discriminatory treatment of students with special needs under the Charter of Rights, the Courts recognized each child's right to an equal educational opportunity. They found that all students must have access to an equal educational opportunity in their home (neighborhood) school. This meant that in some schools, for some students, extra money was spent. If a student in a wheelchair needed an elevator, that school installed an elevator - no matter if this is an expenditure above and beyond the normal school budget. The Courts understood that for equal opportunity to occur, there would be a need for differentiated spending.

Class composition limits such as those in Bill 33 and in previous contract language serve the same purpose. They ensure additional time and resources for students with special needs so that inclusion is meaningful and real. They require that resources are redirected so that enough classes are set so that every class has a teacher with the time to focus on each and every student, including those with special needs.

VCPAC should reconsider their approach. They are doing a dis-service to those children for whom they should most be advocating for. They are hiding information from the public when they should be trying to ensure open and transparent governance by our Trustees. They are inadvertently supporting a position that will lead to less funding and less support for all students. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pearson-alized learning: Guest commentary on #bcedplan

Today's guest post is from David Komljenovic, Kamloops teacher
After researching more about the origins of the BC Education plan and the proliferation of the 21st century learning mantra, I am more convinced that our message could be "BC Public Education is not for sale".
From the information to follow, there is evidence that corporations and primarily one has benefitted from the underfunding and undermining of public education. My sense is that when government attempts to create crisis in education, corporations give the appearance that they need to come and pick up the pieces. Difficult to do in BC which ranks as one of the best in the world. But the BC Ed plan may be the equivalent to the premise of Snobelen's infamous speech on "manufacturing crisis" in Ontario's public education system.
Pearson Education is the largest corporation in the education market (not that there should be a market in public education - but...). With the recent move to provide districts and charter schools in the US with personalized learning options, consider their creep into Canada and BC.
First, consider what Pearson is doing in the field of Personalized Learning (http://www.pearsoned.com/pearson-and-knewton-partner-to-advance-next-generation-of-digital-education/). In the attached article, the company Knewton joined up with Pearson to provide a diagnosis tool for students proficiency (enter Standardized Testing). If you wondered how standardized testing fits with the BC Education Plan, consider the market for standardized tests and how corporations will say that they are just using them as a toold to diagnose learner need so that their program can be personalized. The program is also a product that can be provided by Pearson or Knewton or perhaps another corporation.
Second, Pearson is involved in taking over the international assessments (PISA) that consistently rank Finland, Canada, and South Korea at the top - more egalitarian and/or cooperative systems compared to the rest of the jurisdictions. (http://www.pearson.com/media-1/announcements/?i=1485). What will corporate control of the assessments mean - haven't put my mind to that question but it is a concern.
Then consider that Pearson has taken over BCeSIS. Again, a manufactured crisis - as if BCeSIS was even necessary. It was forced upon districts who spent countless funds and ended up being a failure. Here comes Pearson to the rescue to take over the program to replace it with BCeSIS. Consider this article from the Vancouver Sun: http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2010/11/17/bcesis-and-pearson-education-better-for-teachers/ .  Enter Bill 3 - the attempt by government to eliminate privacy protections that were in place before (https://www.privacyassociation.org/publications/2011_10_21_opinion_bc_bill_could_threaten_privacy/) . The government will have a greater ability to collect information on individual citizens and share the information with other agencies (Homeland Security in the US is a concern - so it providing the information to corporations like Pearson which will have access to the software system with just about all of a student's information anyways).  
In terms of Personalized Learning in BC (which is the BC Education Plan), Pearson has already met with various districts to help provide services. Consider this article: http://www.pearsonschoolcanada.ca/index.cfm?locator=PSZqH7.
The icing on the top for government, they can say all of this necessitates them gutting our collective rights and have us worry about that while they are accelerating the sale of public education. But the real agenda, in my mind, is having corporations come in and provide (and control) funding where the government (and really the people of BC) should be stepping in.
Educational philosopher John Dewey stated "Democracy must be born anew in each generation, and education is its midwife". Media control in Canada is a concern in that few corporations control a fair bit of information, but education is all about thought. Personalized learning as a marketed program that is provided by one or two major corporations will provide one or two versions of thought - which is why the fight for professionalism is more important now than ever before.  
So while teachers have been told we cannot wear buttons or place materials on bulletin boards to express thought, a major corporation will soon have unlimited access to children for what reason other than to exploit (consider the premise in the film "The Corporation" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corporation_(film).

Pearson's drive to control the world's educational needs cannot help but undermine what public education is meant to serve - which is a diversity of thought without control of any one opinion.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Smartphones or saxophones? bcedplan gets it wrong

I don't happen to believe that schooling is simply a preparation for the workforce. But even if you did, a little critical examination of Minister Abbott's bcedplan might have you shaking your head.

Minister Abbott was widely quoted promoting the virtues of technology in schools. CKNW reported that "The model includes a focus on critical thinking and bringing technology into the classroom, including smartphones and tablets." Abbott's rationale? ""The world has changed and continues to change and in order to keep pace we need to shift the way we look at teaching and learning". (http://www.news1130.com/news/local/article/293529--bc-releases-new-education-plan-in-midst-of-teachers-strike)

Now I'm not a Luddite, and as an Information Technology teacher myself I do believe we need computer education at the secondary level and that there is an argument for some technology in earlier grades based on good pedagogy and as a tool for teachers and students. But I was intrigued by a quote from an article in The Economist this week on a similar subject: "The nature of what constitutes work today—the notion of a full-time job—will have to change dramatically. The things that make people human—the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously—are the comparative advantages they have over machines. They are also the skills that machines, no matter how smart, have had the greatest difficulty replicating." (http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/11/artificial-intelligence)

So even if you did happen to think that so called 21st century education should be preparation for 21st century work, you might still come to the conclusion that more technology in schools is a mistake, and maybe focusing on creativity should happen without machines - particularly at younger ages.

Two widely circulated articles appeared this week in the New York Times and the Globe & Mail on the subject of Waldorf schools and their attitude towards technology in schools. Waldorf schools do not introduce any technology until high school. They also require that every student learn a string instrument. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?ref=us)

There is a growing collection of reasons to question the validity of more technology for younger students. Recent recommendations from the medical community suggest no screen time for very young children and limited screen time for elementary age children. The realities of two working parent households mean that many children get all the screen time they should before they step into the school yard. Most parents I know judge a child care centre on how few televisions or computers they have, not how many.

Which gets me to the title of today's post: Smartphones or saxophones?

I'm using music here as a metaphor for all the creative arts - many of the same arguments apply. And of course it shouldn't necessarily be an either or for resources in schools, but exactly where are the saxophones in the Minister's plan?

I've never understood why music has been relegated to an "extra" in our schools. Almost no school or District in BC provides music at every school and free musical instruments for every student. And yet no school expects students to bring their own laptop to the computer lab, soccer ball to the playing field or saw to the carpentry room (although they are increasingly charged for the wood!).

Sadly, most music programs have been forced to charge fees and rely on parents supplying instruments and fundraising extensively. Some even ask parents to purchase the sheet music. Music specialist teachers have all but disappeared in many Districts at the elementary level. Music teachers pour their hearts into their programs and work hours and hours of overtime to provide concert opportunities, to organize fundraising, and to plan trips for bands, choirs and orchestras.

In my mind, music literacy and knowing how to play a musical instrument and read music should be one of the core skills taught in K-12 schools. A myriad of literature makes the connection between musical literacy and learning - particularly learning of pattern recognition and mathematical skills. Music teaches about persistence, patience, creativity, teamwork, history, and beauty. Moreover music is an integral component to many of the "knowledge based" work opportunities available today. Outside private music lessons are prohibitively expensive for many families, making public school the only opportunity for learning an instrument for a good portion of the population.

I heard a music teacher lament recently about the impossibility of the school District ever supplying adequate resources to purchase $500 instruments for all students. And yet the very same government can afford a $1.2 billion contract with Telus for increased computer network access. Where's the 21st century creativity in that?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teacher activism: Keeping BC's education system strong

Thanks to Patti Bacchus, whose tweet has inspired this blog post.

Patti wrote:

@garymasonglobe Could "acrimony" & push back from TF re gov't agenda be what's kept BC system strong while others have deteriorated ? #bced

She was responding to a recent article in Globe & Mail by Gary Mason reviewing a new book by Tom Fleming on the history of BC schools. Tom's thesis is that there has been forty years of acrimony, starting with the politicization and unionization of teachers in the 1970's and 1980's.

I haven't read the book, but I do know that BC teachers have been engaged in collective action for the betterment of our profession and BC's education system for a much longer time. In fact, I am looking forward to the hundred year anniversary of the Victoria teachers' strike in 1919, which was the first teachers strike in the Commonwealth.

BC teachers were active throughout the first half of the twentieth century over a variety of issues. For example, equal pay for female teachers was a hot topic mid-century to address glaring pay differentials that existed.

Mr. Fleming takes aim at everyone in the system - teachers, School Trustees and the Ministry of Education. But it's not particularly helpful to simply describe these players as being "at war" with one another, serving their own interests only, or stuck in a bureaucratic morass. There is a lot more to the dynamics than a difference in attitude or stagnation.

The 70's and 80's were a high point for education systems worldwide for a reason. It was the culmination of western policies to enhance public education systems in response to the "Sputnik" threat of the Soviet Union. The US famously announced the need to keep ahead in scientific knowledge in order to win the cold war, and the rest of the western world followed suit. Governments poured funding into a massive expansion of both K-12 and post-secondary institutions. By the 1970's and 80's these systems were at their peak, having been the recipients of real investment from government.

But beginning in the mid-80's the western world changed. Reagan and Thatcher took a wildly different economic perspective and began an era of massive government cutbacks. This reached Canada in the mid-90's with the federal Liberal program of restraint that took the form of sizable reductions to the "transfer" payments to the provinces to cover health care and education costs. Since this time, the BC education system has seen funding go from $9 billion per year to $5 billion per year (in constant dollars).

Coincidentally, the 80's also saw an ideological attack on education away from scientific discovery and creative and innovative thinking, towards achievement measured by standardized testing. Over the last thirty years, BC introduced Grade 12 exams, then Foundation Skills Assessment exams and then Grade 10 and 11 exams. Every District now has an "Achievement Contract" based primarily on test results and the rankings of these tests are published by the Fraser Institute.

It is a mistake to suggest that the entirety of the twentieth century should be characterized by the "factory" model of education. Yes, Fordism and the factory model were significant in the early part of the century. But I went to school in the 1980's and called my teachers by their first names, sat at round tables, didn't get grades, went on many experiential learning trips and wrote not a single standardized test. This was no factory model.

On the teacher front, the 70's and 80's saw a blooming of professional expression and creativity by teachers. How did this manifest? In many ways through the teacher activists in the BCTF. As a union focused not just on the economic welfare of its members, but also on the pillars of social justice and professional development, the BCTF and the many local teacher associations were instrumental in advocating for progressive changes in the education system. Many were won during that period and have played a significant role in the excellent system we have today. Many have been severely under attack for the last twenty years in the midst of a complete lack of commitment to full funding - notably class size.

Victoria teachers went on strike for smaller classes in the early 90's. We were successful and Victoria students reaped the benefit of those struggles for a decade until they were legislated away with the stroke of a pen by the BC Liberals.

Is the system "at war". Probably yes. But a closer look at why and what for reveals more truths than lamenting that we all can't get along. There has been a systematic attack on public education for two decades. Teachers have been resisting. Our resistance has kept the system strong.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Abbott's plan: some thoughts...

Some of my thoughts on George Abbott's announcement:

This plan is not really about individualizing instruction, adapting to student needs or providing more opportunities outside the more "traditional" forms of teaching and learning. If it was, then it would be accompanied by funding (there is exactly zero dollars attached to it...just like teacher bargaining!), and the first items it would address is class size and preparation time. Teachers know that the primary barrier to addressing individual student needs is the desperate lack of teacher time to do so.

Here is what the Globe and Mail reported: "Although the plan includes a promise of more support for teachers, there is no additional money promised to pay for the initiatives. “The preoccupation is not with money at the moment, the preoccupation is with good ideas and best practices,” Mr. Abbott said in an interview."

The plan is also insulting to teachers. Littered throughout are veiled references to our failures. The suggestion is that teachers have NOT been putting children's interests first, are NOT developing and enhancing their skills, are NOT exploring alternative ways of teaching. It is concerning that there is an ever increasing emphasis on "fix the teacher" and a complete lack of acknowledgment that teachers are hampered by large classes, too many students with special needs to be able to cope with the range of abilities, not enough EAs and learning specialists and inadequate resources, dealing with poverty in the classroom, etc.

Unfortunately, the plan also contains: an increase in the provision of private educational services, increase in the workload of teachers, reducing the overall number of teachers (through more dl and private services), and an erosion of teachers' professional autonomy.

The plan makes almost no mention of students with special needs. It does not mention class composition or class size.

The devil is in the details, and the details are not there. A few of the more positive items in the plan are woefully under-defined. What would a "mentor" program look like? Will teachers be involved in designing it? When will it take place and how? While a mentoring program could be a fantastic addition to our system, my fear is that with no money, it will simply be mandatory extra work for teachers at the end of an already exhausting day.

The announcement came with no new funding. This is one of the most crucial points. Many aspects of the plan will take considerable time. Without any additional funding, this means loss of funding for other areas or a lot more work for teachers. For example, who will be writing an Individual Learning Plan for every student, every year? This is a massive amount of work. Will teachers do this on top of their existing duties? Who will pay for the new technology? Will this come at the expense of music programs? Class size?

BCeSIS v. 2.0? "An improved provincial student information and reporting system will help teachers plan a more personalized learning experience with students and teachers." Also in the plan are a province wide standard report card along with performance standards for all grades, and "digital tools and resources that support both face to face and online learning". No money is provided for any of this, so presumably it must come from existing budgets, just as the costs for BCeSIS did. The only money announcement that has been made is the $1.2 billion contract with Telus to rewire the entire province's public services.

Credits for private educational services. "We will expand our current learning credential program to better recognize learning that takes place outside of the classroom – like arts, sports, science and leadership programs – so that students are fairly acknowledged for this work." This could have a significant impact on teachers in the arts, science and leadership. Already, students can receive public school credit for private courses (such as Royal Conservatory of Music, for example). If the number of credit opportunities expand by allowing more private educational services to count as credit courses, there will be a loss of jobs and funding in these areas.

Increased Ministry control over professional development. "We will work with our education partners to make sure that Professional Development days are used to enhance educators’ knowledge base and professional expertise. It is important that teachers are able to refresh and develop new practices throughout their careers by participating in professional learning opportunities. On Professional Development days, parents make alternative arrangements for their children and they need to be assured that these days are used as intended." This entire paragraph is about not trusting teachers to control their professional development. The unspoken words are that teachers do not enhance our knowledge and we do not develop, because we do not use our professional development days "as intended". In other documents, the Ministry has referred to the need to "align" our professional development with Ministry and student needs. It is possible that underlying this is an intent to legislate that all PD days are Ministry directed topics and mandatory. This would effectively end self-directed professional development. It suggests that there is no role for the professional in directing their learning based on their own evaluation of their needs, but rather need to spend all professional development days only in "alignment" with Ministry initiatives. It undermines the professionalism of teaching and would mean there was no time for teachers to focus on professional learning specific to their own teaching position.

Remember the last time the words "flexibility" and "choice" were used? Our Collective Agreement was stripped, and this "flexibility" led to a situation in my school where by 2005 every single PE class had over 40 students. The "plan" envisions flexibility for the school calendar, the school day, school location, and schooling at school or at home. It openly envisions an increase in online and 'blended' learning. Why? Case loads for distributed learning classes are much, much higher than class sizes for 'face to face' learning. This means you need fewer teachers and there is cost savings. There may be merit in some of these ideas, but I don't trust a government whose primary goal is to spend no money. "Flexibility" often means "remove minimum standards".

The timing of the announcement was also important. This will act as a distraction from the issues that teachers have brought forward as issues of critical importance to improving schools - namely adequate funding, smaller classes, more learning specialists/teacher librarians/special education teachers, adequate resources for students with special needs and improved class composition. It is also a diversion from what teachers have put on the bargaining table to improve teaching and learning: class size/composition, competitive salaries and benefits and increased preparation time.

I very much liked the response by three Vancouver Trustees posted on Facebook here:


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Teachers upset with BCPSEA allegations and threats

Teachers in Greater Victoria flooded the District email server today to tell Trustees the truth about teachers' working hours. They were upset at the suggestion by BCPSEA that teachers should be paying 15% of their salary back to Boards (via the union) because of our job action.

Here are some excerpts from their letters:

We'll, I've just spent my lunch hour running around like a 'chicken with it's head cut off' trying to prep. for my afternoon classes. This is a regular occurrence now that my prep. time is among the lowest in Canada and I have to do all my own photocopying and the other countless jobs in order to effectively present lessons for my students. Of course, marking and assessing my students' work usually has to wait until the evening when my daughter is asleep and I can have several hours to myself.

I urge you to reconsider your position, speak out against this LRB application, and urge your local negotiating team to get back to the table and bargain in good faith.

It is key that you have a clear understanding of the ongoing dedication of the work teachers are committed to inside and out of their classrooms....As far as reporting, as a special education teacher, I am currently writing 8-12 page IEP reports for each of my students, meeting with parents in 90 minute meetings and collaborating with staff on how best these students can be supported. Please pay attention and take positive action to support teachers, students and schools.

It was with a great deal of sadness that I read about the total lack of respect exhibited by those that would seek to punish myself and my colleagues for attempting to follow a process that was, I assumed, a fundamental right. Like every teaching professional I have done my job in the classroom, which includes communicating with parents when they so desired, or when I was concerned about an individual student. After regular school hours, as the senior Drama teacher in the district, I put in countless hours in the presentation of productions, as do all other extra curricular teachers and coaches... What is wrong with this picture?

I too work between 45 and 50 hours a week for little over four days a week pay. I have enough self respect to know I’m shamefully underpaid, but there are other considerations. No one yet has mentioned what this crushing need in our schools has done to our family members.

Yesterday, I got a phone call from my husband. His mother is dying. He was scrambling to arrange a last minute flight back east so he could be there at the end. After school, instead of rushing home to make him a meal before rushing him out to the airport, I was in my classroom, talking with a boy who has escaped gang life. He wanted my advice on a budding romance between him and an older co-worker. He wanted to talk about his mother, who is dying. He needed to tell me about his father, who has cancer. His sister has special needs. I spent an hour with him, ignoring the huge stack of marking on my desk, the fact that at home I had a sick child, the fact that my husband had just learned he was about to lose his mother, and was present and patient with this kid, because this kid and every other kid in this province matter.

This isn’t a game. It’s not some pathetic macho posturing on our part. Our job takes it out of our bones, and we do it because we care. Does anyone else?

My husband ended up making supper. Again.

This year has been a roller coaster, so far, to say the least. I was excited and enthusiastic to begin my classes and meet my new students, and this element of my job has not let me down in the slightest. I feel inspired and energized on a daily basis and sink my heart, soul and body into my students and their learning. I have corresponded with parents, sent home progress reports, worked with students before and after school as well as during my lunch hours. I am thrilled once again to be so involved with the young minds of our future and to be amongst fellow professionals. My colleagues and I continue to meet in our departments and on school based teams with the intention to provide the very best educational experiences for our students.

On the flip side, is the absolutely devastating disrespect of our employer. We seem to be a throw away profession, attacked publicly, who do not garner even a modicum of positive support or respect from the Ministry of Education. It is heartbreaking that we invest 5 years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to become the very teachers who are so devalued in this province. On the heels of the countless hours of my own time that I spend marking, I am a senior level, secondary English teacher, and providing student support and activities, I learned yesterday that the government is seeking to reduce our pay by 15-20%. I was on my way to work at the time, and wanted nothing more than to turn around, go back home and issue my resignation...I am glad that I am not an easily defeated person, and arrived at work EARLY and in a positive mood to meet my students. I will NOT resign, but only strengthen my resolve to unite with my colleagues to make the changes desperately needed for our students of today and the future.

I need you to support me and my colleagues. We are not doing less.... we are doing everything we are suppose to do and more. I started this email last night at 11pm when I was replying to student emails and communications to parents. I have made it very clear to all my parents and students that I am available to update, discuss and communicate any time that they want. I've told them I will call, evenings, weekends, what ever works for them. I have not shut down but rather freely open the doors to parental participation and support without hesitation. Perhaps this job action is the best possible situation for parental and teacher relations. I want to be that teacher parents know they can trust and rely on to help support their children. I work incredibly hard to make it so.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

BCPSEA's hypocritical application to LRB over BC teachers wages

The BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) is making an application this afternoon to the Labour Relations Board on behalf of BC School Trustees. The application seeks to charge the teachers' union, the BC Teachers Federation, for a portion of teacher salaries during the current job action. Apparently they are asking for 5 - 20% of teachers wages.

The hypocrisy is mind boggling. Let's consider the facts.

Teachers are not attending a monthly staff meeting. They are not completing formal report cards three times per year. In some districts, they are not doing outdoor supervision during recess and lunch. They are doing all tasks in relation to teaching including lesson preparation, instruction, marking and assessment. They are continuing to communicate with parents on all aspects of student learning. They are continuing to organize field trips. They are continuing extra-curricular activities.

Most teachers report that the small amount of time not spent in meetings or doing paperwork is now being spent on enhanced lesson preparation, increased individual time with students, and more assessment. No teacher I know of is working fewer hours.

Meanwhile, in 2002 the BC Liberals unilaterally and illegally stripped teachers' collective agreement of class size and class composition limits. As a result, most teachers workloads increased. Increased class sizes lead to direct increases in workload. There is more marking, more assessing, more reporting, more parent contact. Increased class composition also leads to direct increases in workload. A student with an Individual Education Plan requires individualized lessons. This can be a major increase in workload where teachers have many such students in their class(es).

When teachers negotiated provincial class size limits, they gave up salary. A three year agreement was reached with 0%, 0%, and 2%. In exchange, the limits ensured reasonable workloads for teachers as well as improved learning conditions for students.

When these limits were stripped, there was no corresponding increase in pay. Teachers simply lost. The lost salary has meant BC teachers are now eighth in Canada. And teachers report working an average of 49 hours per week, with one tenth of teachers working 60 hours or more. There is no extra pay for these extra hours of work.

The BC Supreme Court found the contract stripping was illegal. The government has been forced to enter discussions with the BCTF to address their actions. So far, the government has insisted that there will be ZERO compensation for teachers for the effects of the illegal legislation.

So for ten years teachers have been working for significantly longer hours for lower salaries. And now, after two months of extremely limited job action, that same government (via its employer's agent) wants 20% of our wages.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy Education Builds Momentum

Watch live streaming video from occupynyc at livestream.com

Teachers across America are joining the 99% and building links and solidarity with the Occupy movement.

In New York City, teachers and parents were some of the firs to join the protests. See a good video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1cuFUC9iSE

Recently, a group of teachers took their marking to the Occupy Wall Street protest. American blogger Fred Klonsky describes their action and how they were dispersed by the police:

"Grade-ins have become common in cities across the country as teachers gather in public spaces to do work that usually gets done at home, off the clock and unrecognized: prepping for classes, grading papers and doing the unending paperwork that the school bureaucracies demand.

Since there was no open space in Liberty Square, this group of teachers gathered across the street. A few minutes later two uniformed New York cops arrived on the scene.

“What’s going on.”
“We’re grading papers.”
“Can’t do that here.”

The cops disappeared for a few minutes and suddenly there were a half-dozen more New York cops.

“Can’t do that here,” they repeated.

“Thank you, officers,” one of the teachers politely said. And the teachers gathered their tests, folding chairs and hand-made cardboard signs and moved across the street, disappearing into the crowd."


Across the country, in Los Angeles, another group of teachers and supporters went to the Los Angeles Unified School District office to initiate Occupy LAUSD. This movement has three demands:

1. Tax the 1% to fully fund schools for our students.
2. By the 99%. For the 99%. Keep our public schools public!
3. Democratic community based schools: Not corporate wall street reform.

It should be no surprise that teachers are in the forefront of the Occupy movement. Teachers have, in many cases, been first in the firing line of US policies to cut wages and benefits. In addition, schools and boards have suffered massive cut backs and the American "reform" movement has explicitly attacked public schooling through the promotion of Charter schools.

For more information on Occuply LAUSD: http://www.occupylausd.org/

Monday, October 24, 2011

The "transformation agenda" for BC education? - follow the IT contracts...

Education Minister Abbott's plan's for our K-12 education system became alarmingly clear to me when I stumbled upon the presentation given to the School Superintendent's Association by IBM Canada.

A lot of people have looked at Deputy Minister's James Gorman's powerpoint. But the IBM powerpoint shows the agenda in much starker terms.

In fact, a single page of the 64 page presentation was amazingly insightful.

Check out page 46 of the presentation which is available on the BCSSA's web site here: http://www.bcssa.org/PDFs/SLA2011/IBMsmarter-ed.pdf

The page is titled: "A Vision for Education Transformation". Does that sound familiar? Now check out the title of the Minister's recent press release: "B.C.’s plan for education transformation". (see here: http://www2.news.gov.bc.ca/news_releases_2009-2013/2011EDUC0086-001303.htm)

The slide goes on to show the three components of the "transformation agenda":
  • "Using Data and Analytics to Drive Personalized Instructional Plans"
  • "Delivered through a more manageable and scalable device infrastructure"
  • "Supported by broadband networks spanning the community"
The first is the most interesting, as it has the most potential to dramatically damage teaching and learning in BC. But it is needed to justify the second two, which, not surprisingly, are where IBM and Telus and a few other technology companies fit in. As the slide confirms, IBM imagines itself as the provider of the "IBM Desktop Cloud", which conveniently delivers the "data", "analytics" and "personalized instructional plans". Telus, having already been awarded a $1 billion contract, would no doubt provide the "broadband networks spanning the community". On top of the Cloud sit a few other pieces of software, notably produced by "Pearson Auxiliaries" - companies owned or affiliated with Pearson - the company that used to be mostly about textbooks. (You might have read about Pearson lately when they purchases the now infamous failed BCeSIS - the BC Liberal's disastrous student information system now declared by an independent review a  unfix-able waste of $100 million.)

But let's get back to the first part for a minute. The diagram shows a collection of "systems" which will be used to provide the "data" and "analytics" in a so-called "dashboard". I take it the "dashboard" is some kind of user interface for the "Cloud". The picture shows charts and graphs on the "dashboard". I take it these represent the "data" which has been suitably "analyzed".

The data on the "dashboard" comes from another set of computer programs. These are the "Pearson Auxiliaries". Let's have a closer look at some of these companies:
  • SchoolNet - owned by Pearson, produces software for "Instructional Improvement", "Educator Development", "Student Information and Grading", and "District and Parent Portals"
  • SPSS - owned by IBM, produces statistical data analysis
  • SAP - has a forty year history of working with IBM, produces software for data warehousing and data analytics
  • Peoplesoft - produces database software that is used by many universities to manage course selection and student records
  • SEAS - owned by Computer Automation Systems Inc stands for "Special Education Automation Software" and makes software that stores, manages and tracks Individual Education Plans
Clearly what is envisioned, by IBM at least, is a fully integrated, completely computerized data-driven bureaucracy. Where decision making within this system is driven by charts and graphs. Where the human element does not even warrant a symbol in the diagram. Where the assumption is that we need more "analytics" to improve student success, rather than suitable resources, teaching techniques or materials.

So if you had concerns that Accountability Contracts (which all School Boards must produce) were already too "data-driven" by Foundation Skills Assessment test score results, watch out. IBM promises to: "Bring together deep analytics with advanced technology, learning resources and research to create new insights
and guide decisions."

And if you were shocked by the appalling interface on BCeSIS which required five minutes worth of button clicks just to mark a student as late, take a look at some PeopleSoft programs. When I first saw a PeopleSoft screen it my the first of two times I have witnessed a single screen with upwards of three different embedded boxes with slider bars, some of which went sideways and some vertical. The next time I saw these was BCeSIS.

And if you have any concerns about privacy and the use of personal data, beware. This "transformation" imagines every component of the education bureaucracy coded, stored, analyzed, and on screen, from the sick days taken by a teacher to the score of a student's math test to every student's learning plan to the food order for the cafeteria. Hence the need for the government to introduce Bill 3, currently in process in the legislature, which would allow all this "cloud" computing with your personal information. Here is one further quote that gives an indication of the quantity and breadth of data collection envisioned: "Access to learning resources from a variety of mobile devices, Sensors to collect data for large scale research projects
(environment, weather, energy usage, transportation, etc), Digital video surveillance to protect students on campus and in school buildings". It makes Google Street View seem downright tame.

If you have ever used Rosetta Stone, you will be familiar with the kind of learning this "data-driven" model encapsulates - sit at a computer, take a canned lesson, get feedback, take a new lesson based on your score, repeat. Here it is described on slide 27 of the presentation:
  • Increase results by shifting to data-driven decisions by...using data to track and evaluate student progress
  • Early identification of performance problems by...leveraging analytics to identify performance issues early
  • Better support for teachers and alignment of resources to needs by...Building and managing customized
    intervention plans using district and other models
  • Improved student outcomes through better engagement and personalized instruction by...Leveraging integrated technology delivery of personalized lesson plans, in and outside the classroom
There a number of real nuggest in this presentation. Note some of the key words we've seen elsewhere in the Ministry literature such as "alignment". Here are a few:

Concerned economics is taking priority over pedagogy?: "Education programs and economic initiatives align for long term sustainability and growth."

Worried your kids already have too much screen time, here's more: "Integration of Consumer IT devices
into learning environments in a device-agnostic manner"

Concerned big brother is tracking your cell phone?: "Social media becomes integral to learning and begins to use analytics."

Worried this agenda will mean less classroom time and more computer time?: "Learning Delivery and Digital Content Management: Assemble personalized lesson plans from various sources, Deliver learning to a variety of in- and out-of-classroom devices, Allow access to learning materials beyond the classroom"

Concerned schools are becoming too competitive and stressful for young children?: "Provide every student with optimized learning and skills development to enable them to compete in the new economy through a dynamic, cost effective and adaptive learning environment."

Lastly, we see where the BC government is getting their "policy" advice on page 30 where IBM suggests that "Successful education systems in the next decade will share a number of strategic policy actions" which are listed:

"Adopt and Promote a vision of Personalized Learning encouraging better use of data and analytics to manage and tailor learning services to individual students

Establish Student-Centric versus Institutionally-Centric Processes to provide better insights, interventions and
opportunities to improve outcomes

Promote Open Standards and Open Platforms in Technology to enable a broad set of providers to contribute to a rich, diverse world of learning

Consolidate Services across Institutions and Agencies to realize the benefits of cloud computing and shared services"

In plain English: Create a need for data and increased technology with the myth of "personalized learning", Diminish the importance of schools and communities by focusing on the individual student, Let all the technology companies in on the spoils (there's enough for everyone), Do it everywhere on a large scale and sell this with the myth of efficiencies of "shared services"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Big brother and the Ministry of Education

You will be forgiven for missing Bill 3, introduced in the BC legislature on October 4th. I did. I was too busy thinking about the government's grand new plans for education. But in fact, they are related.

It is a change in the Freedom of Information and Privacy legislation designed, I suspect, to enable government's plan to extend and expand its IT infrastructure everywhere from health care records to student learning plans and who knows where else. A good overview and critique appeared in the Times Colonist today: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/bill+could+open+your+private+information/5579284/story.html

If you are wondering why the BC government has offered only a pittance to help address class composition and students with special needs - the answers are here. They need it all for their IT projects. In 2002 the government removed $330 million PER YEAR that was used for class size and class composition. Meanwhile the "Class organization fund" announced this month will get $0 this year, $30 million next, $65 million the year after and $70 million in year 4, with no promise of funding beyond that time.

At the same time, Telus has been quietly awarded a $1 - $1.2 billion project to do, well something.

Missed that announcement in the newspaper? Me too. I'm not sure if it ever was announced, but I found out about it here: http://www.bcssa.org/powerpoints/SLA2011/DMpresentation-sla2011.pptx, in a PowerPoint presentation by Jim Gorman, Deputy Minister of Education, to the School Superintendents Association. It's on page 27, right in the middle of 20 pages about Technology and Education. A full one third of the presentation focused on Technology, and not a word on class composition or students with special needs.

This comes after the grand debacle that is BCeSIS - $100 million wasted on a student information system that the government then paid another $250,000 to an independent reviewer to find out it doesn't work and can't be fixed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to judge a School Board candidate - by their record

With Trustee elections less than a month away, my usual frustration is mounting over how little "accountability" there is for School Board Trustees.

Every Trustee candidate I know would proudly say that they "support public education". That they will "stand up for schools and communities". That they will be "advocates".

Sorry. That's not good enough. I hear those phrases from the 1% when they are in fact trying to pass policies that do exactly the opposite.

So my advice to anyone out there thinking about who to vote for? Watch what they DO, not what they SAY. Huge difference.

Let's take Victoria Trustees for example.

Probably all 13 running for School Board would say they support "quality" education. Many would say they support "small classes" and "supports for students". But the raw reality is this:

Only ONE....that's right ONE Trustee actually voted AGAINST a class organization that included HUNDREDS of classes that exceed School Act limits. That one was Catherine Alpha.

Despite their "progressive" leanings and profession of supporting teachers, students and schools, not a single other incumbent Trustee insisted that class sizes and class composition in Victoria schools should stay within the legislated limits by voting against the class organization report (the limits are 30 students, no more than 3 with special needs). Not even the candidates (Peg Orcherton and Bev Horsman) who were endorsed by the Labour Council would stand up for kids and classroom conditions and insist that legislated limits are adhered to by voting against the report.

It's very easy for candidates to say all the things they know that you want to hear...right around election time. Be careful and insist on the facts. Only voting records and their actions in public office tell the true story.

Solidarity and the 99% - Why teachers should support the Occupy movement

If you are a teacher, you should join the "Occupy" movement. Not since the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization has there been such a large and significant protest movement aimed at the "neo-liberal" economic agenda. Now, a decade later, the reasons to confront the predominant political agenda have never been more pressing and urgent. And in many ways, teachers are in the forefront of this struggle.

In the years following World War II, a significant expansion of the public sector took place, including education. Schools multiplied, many teachers were hired, and a great emphasis was placed on a high quality public education system. At that time the focus was broad not narrow - every child should be afforded equal opportunity to succeed. Schools were places not just to learn how to read, but also to become mathematically and scientifically literate, and to explore one's potential in the arts, sports, music and other areas of creative endeavor. Equity was important, and so schools were free and the emphasis was on quality schools in EVERY neighborhood, not simply the best opportunity for "my child". Into the seventies and even eighties, increased funding meant schools and educators were able to expand programs and tune and develop their pedagogy.

At the same time, teachers unions secured basic benefits for their members - the right to organize, the right to equal salaries between women and men, decent pensions and benefits packages, and fair working conditions secured with limits on class sizes, case loads and class composition limits.

But by the mid-nineties, neo-liberalism came to BC with a vengeance. The first assault was the Federal Liberal program to drastically reduce transfer payments to the provinces. As this money primarily supports health care and education and other public services, these were the areas to be hit. Decreased provincial budgets "trickled down" through the system in a variety of ways: elimination of local bargaining rights, reduced School Board budgets year after year leading to layoffs and cuts, and stagnating wages and benefits.

By the time the BC Liberals came to power in 2001, we were already struggling to maintain our high quality system on the backs of our own extra labour. Teachers were working longer hours for less pay. Money disappeared for things like in-service training in new curriculum and staff collaboration time. More and more the expectation became that teachers did all the "extras" on their own time. Not just marking and lesson preparation, but meetings, parent/teacher interviews, administrative paper work, preparing Individual Education Plans, meeting with School Based Team, department meetings, attendance record keeping and the list goes on. And the "extras"  became an ever growing list. With teachers the only large salaried group of employees, every new initiative, data collection scheme or administrative task was downloaded to teachers. Supposedly the system could "improve" just by giving teachers more work to do.

The policies and legislative agenda of the BC Liberals took us into overdrive. Within three years they took away our right to strike (Essential Services), stripped our working conditions out of our Collective Agreement (Bills 27/28), attacked our professional control over standards by overhauling the BC College of Teachers, and radically changed the focus of education policy from "we" to "me".

No longer was the emphasis on public schooling for society, for equity, for equal opportunity. Instead policies based on "choice" pandered to the notion that schools are primarily for "my child". Fee based Academies created opportunities for some children, but not others. FSA rankings and the opening of catchment areas led to parents "shopping" for the "best school". Rather than a philosophy of a great school for every child, they promote the best school for my child. No matter the children who can't afford the extra programs, the schools that can't fund-raise thousands of dollars, the parents who cannot drive their child to the chosen school.

At the same time, wages continued to stagnate, provincial bargaining proved dysfunctional, teachers were legislated back to work multiple times, and wages and benefits continued their slide.

Teachers, students and society have all paid a price.

Teachers have had significant losses in earnings, benefits, and face increasingly untenable working conditions. In my school District, over a five year period one in ten teachers will take stress related medical leave. Across BC, 3500 teachers lost their jobs, and the prospects for new teachers today are grim. Fewer teachers are working longer hours for less pay, while new graduates struggle with unemployment.

Students increasingly do not receive the services to ensure their social and academic success. A student requiring special education services is now lucky to get 15 minutes per week at a typical middle school. Students diagnosed with autism often receive Educational Assistance support only for half of the week - as if somehow their autism disappears for the remainder. Students in oversize classes get less individual attention, less personalized assessment, and learn in more crowded and chaotic environments.

Our schools are shamefully leaving many students and their families behind. In BC, both aboriginal and special needs students graduation rates continue to hover at or below the 50% range. Rather than the great equalizer of opportunity, schools more and more are exacerbating the social inequalities that already exist. Students living in foster care, for example, have drastically lower success rates and they fall further behind the longer they are in school.

Every aspect of the Occupy movement can be found in a microcosm in the sad history of our public schools over the past two decades. Inequality is rising. Wages are stagnating. Unemployment is increasing. Young people no longer can look forward to a better education, better opportunities, better careers, better benefits and better pensions. Instead, they are drowning under the weight of increased competition for fewer public services, greater debt load simply to get an education, and the prospect of any "decent" job being gone by the time they grow up and finish school.

The most fantastic part of the Occupy movement is the focus on solidarity. The slogan "we are the 99%" perfectly summarizes where the division in society is - between the wealthy and powerful one percent and the rest of us. The "middle class" teacher struggling to keep wages in line with inflation and maintain decent pensions and modernize benefits is not the enemy of the unemployed twenty something deep in student loan debt. The very jobs and benefits we are struggling to maintain are the job and benefits that the twenty somethings need to be available to them, so that they too will have the opportunity to raise a family, own a house, and afford the basics of life through to retirement.

At the same time, teachers and public education advocates need to see the Occupy movement as part of our movement. Only through a broader struggle where we reject massive inequality, attacks on workers rights, fees and debt to receive public services, will we turn the tide and move back towards a truly public, quality education system. And so the onus is also on us to join hands with those in the squares and parks to fight for a better world.

What you can do:
  • Donate to the Occupy movement - online or in person, to support those camping out and occupying
  • Drop by an Occupation to show support
  • Join the rallies to support the Occupy movement
  • Educate others by sharing the literature and information about the Occupy movement