Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A standardized contract for personalized learning?

I am perplexed at why Trustees, BCPSEA, and Government all oppose local bargaining at exactly the same time they are proposing personalized learning. It is a contradictory position, and makes me wonder if either position is genuine.

Surely, if the Ministry wants significant change in schools, and if the Ministry wants to work with teachers (not against them), and if the Ministry wants, as they have said, for change to be implemented at the District level, then local bargaining is the ideal framework for enabling those changes. Local bargaining would allow each District to work with their local teachers' associations on changes that make sense for their communities and their schools. Local bargaining and local decisions are the best avenue for increased variety in education.

Take one little example, such as Middle Schools. Negotiations of middle school contract language, from 2006 forward, was done District by District, not provincially. This made sense. Not all districts have middle schools, and each District has implemented middle schools differently. The local contract negotiations enabled local solutions to local school configurations.

Surely personalized learning will look different in different places. So why would we negotiate provincially for changes that need to be local?

I am skeptical of the claims of personalized learning. Real personalized learning takes time, attention, and money. The government is offering none of these.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Privatizing of public education: Only in America or coming to a school near you?

Even if you aren’t a parent or a teacher, US “education reform” probably crossed your path sometime this year. You might have seen the film “Waiting for Superman”, that trumpets the concept of the Charter school. Or you might have watched the 100,000 plus demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin, take on a newly minted and aggressive Republican governor attacking teacher union rights. Or perhaps you came across a news story in some US media outlet, where it is almost impossible these days not to read someone teacher bashing.

Although the American “reform” movement is over a decade old, it really heated up this year. The ideological onslaught began with the release and endless commentary on the film “Waiting for Superman”. If you watched Oprah’s show on September 20, 2010, you saw the program “The Shocking State of Our Schools”. If you heard Bill Gates or Arne Duncan (Obama’s top education czar) or Michelle Rhee (former Washington DC schools chancellor) or practically any mainstream news report the message was the same: Our schools are failing.

And when the one second sound bite got to be two or three messages, the same messages from the movie were listed off as the primary reasons for school failure: bad teachers, greedy teachers, teacher unions, teacher tenure.

These ideas are not new to the “education reform” movement in the US. They date back all the way to the mid-eighties with the introduction of standardized testing in OECD nations. They were, in many ways, enshrined into law through the “No Child Left Behind” act brought in by George W. Bush. And they reached their epitome and perhaps most raw expression in the film “Waiting for Superman”. They are public education’s very own “shock” (a la Naomi Klein), and they are designed to do something very different than improve schools.

The “shock” goes like this:

* Test scores show that our schools are failing
* The most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher
* Bad teachers must be leading to low test scores and failing schools
* We must get rid of bad teachers
* Tenure and teacher unions are in the way

And then there is the actual, unspoken motive: commodify and privatize public education.

It is a difficult theory to put forward. Most parents understand that schooling is more than standardized test scores, and many understand that the tests do nothing to improve their own child’s education. They also tend to like and trust their children’s teachers and schools - certainly more so than a bureaucrat or politician. So it takes a lot of ideological interference to turn Americans against their child’s teacher and their neighborhood school.

At the root of this “shock doctrine” tactic are two goals: commodify and privatize the public education system. In the US, these goals are achieved in a variety of ways and take on various forms. Vouchers, testing, school rankings and Charter schools all provide “market driven” incentives within a publicly funded system. They do not privatize directly, but they create conditions that mimic a private system. Parents are “consumers” who “shop” for schools using rankings based on test scores. Despite voucher systems, the parents with more savvy and resources tend to get their children into the better schools. Charters escape democratic oversight as they don’t run under elected school boards and they are outside of pre-existing union contracts. They can accept private funding (from “philanthropists” such as Bill Gates) and can employ more teachers who work longer at lower costs because there are no unions and no collective agreements when they start up. They even have rights to public funding and buildings whenever a public school “fails”, and are replacing public schools at an alarming rate. They really are a publicly funded private system.

The “education reform” movement also comes with a variety of peripheral policy objectives: merit pay for teachers, more testing to use for more rankings - including teacher rankings as well as school rankings, elimination of teacher unions who are a barrier to school change, lowered teacher training standards to ensure an adequately large supply of new teachers just desperate for a job. So we see the publication in the Los Angeles Times of the “value added” teacher score for every public school teacher (this is meant to be a measure of how much more that teacher can improve student test scores). We see the wholesale introduction of Charter schools in New Orleans after the floods, completely replacing the public system. We see the draconian legislation in Wisconsin and other states designed to drastically reduce the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. And now this spring we are seeing across the US significant funding cuts to education budgets, leading to mass layoffs.

The overall result? The public system is shrinking while the private system grows.

Could this be coming to a school near you?

In the dark Bush years, it was common for (some) Americans to lament and wish they were up north, in Canada, that place free of the worst of the market system run amok. But while the rhetoric may be more tempered, the same trends are apparent.

The most obvious is the testing, accountability and choice agenda. We do not have the same number of tests. But we have enough to produce the Fraser Institute rankings. And enough for Kevin Falcon to float the trial balloon of merit pay for teachers during the BC Liberal leadership race. Ontario has it’s EQAOs and BC its FSAs.

Parents do not have vouchers and Charter schools are uncommon (they do exist in Alberta), but we do have an awful lot of “parent choice”. In Canada, this is more direct - we publicly fund private schools. BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and the North West Territories all provide public funding for private schools - in some cases up to 60% of the equivalent public funding. And BC is leading the way with respect to parent choice within the public system. There are no more fixed catchments - in BC a parent can choose any school, leading to inter-school competition and notoriously unreliable enrollment projections.

The attack on teachers and teacher unions is also alive and well. Ontario, in the Harris years, tried to impose a scheme of practically constant re-certification requirements. Alberta has just floated the idea of a graduated accreditation system, where teachers start their careers in a probationary mode and only after decades of practice and constant evaluation do they become “professional” teachers. The BC government is revamping the BC College of Teachers and threatens, again, to make teachers a minority on their own professional governing body. Just as in the US, these “policy objectives” are justified with erroneous exaggerations of the “bad teachers” who are ruining our education system. Rather than attract the best with competitive salaries (BC is now eighth in Canada) or set high entry standards, the BC government lowered standards (only a four year degree is now required under the TILMA trade agreement with Alberta) and has let salaries, benefits, and working conditions plummet.

And finally the funding. Since the mid-nineties, and the reductions in transfer payment to the provinces, education budgets have been under constant pressure. Combined with the Supreme Court decision requiring fully integrated schools for student with special needs, the pressures on School Boards are insurmountable. Fundraising has become a constant and practically a requirement for most schools. As public schools cut services, parents look elsewhere, if they can afford it. There is a flourishing growth in private specialty services for students with autism, learning disabilities and other specific educational needs, as well as after school tutoring.

The overall result? Canada has experienced a massive increase in alternatives to the public school system - homeschooling, growth in private school enrollment, massive growth in private tutoring and schooling services (see for example: http://www.nall.ca/res/65ScottDavies.pdf). Just as in the US, the results are the same - the public system is shrinking while the private system grows.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Breaking news: BC teachers to hold strike vote in June

The BCTF Representative Assembly just passed a motion to hold a strike vote in late June if there is no progress at bargaining.

There has been no commitment from government to fund improved class sizes and composition despite a court ruling that will reinstate these collective agreement provisions. Improvements to working and learning conditions are teachers' number one issue.

Teachers are frustrated that the BC government continues to adhere to an outdated and unfair "net zero" mandate, while inflation runs at over 3% and teachers have fallen to eight in Canada with respect to salaries.

In addition, the government has indicated it wants significant concessions and that there is no money for any contract improvements in the next two years.

In a news release, the BCTF reports:

"BCTF President Susan Lambert emphasized that teachers do not take this decision lightly. The vote, to be supervised by the Labour Relations Board, will determine whether teachers will launch province-wide collective action with the start of the next school year in September. Initially the job action would involve teachers’ refusal to undertake administrative tasks or to attend unnecessary meetings, while focusing all their energies on the classroom.

“If we need to take this action in the fall we will begin by focusing on the central and joyful work of our profession—teaching our students,” Lambert said. “Parents may not even notice much of a change as teachers intend to continue serving our students in the classroom and communicating with parents about students’ progress. However, we will not be doing administrative work or attending meetings with management.”

Lambert emphasized that teachers want to achieve a negotiated settlement. Although the BCTF and its locals have been bargaining since the beginning of March, progress so far has been limited. “We’re facing resistance at both local and provincial tables, with the BC Public School Employers’ Association stalling on the split of issues and local trustees refusing to bargain anything of substance,” Lambert said.

Meanwhile, teachers have identified clear objectives for this round of bargaining. Their top priorities include: improving teaching and learning conditions (class size and composition, caseloads, learning specialist ratios, and time for class preparation), a fair and reasonable compensation package including benefit improvements commensurate with teachers across Canada, and a return to local bargaining as the best solution to local issues.

Lambert noted that negotiations are taking place in the wake of a BC Supreme Court decision that ruled Liberal legislation which stripped teachers’ contracts and limited their ability to bargain is unconstitutional. The BCTF is urging the government to immediately restore funding levels to make up for the $275 million which was cut every year since 2002, when the legislation was imposed.

“We believe that Premier Clark now has an opportunity to make her “families first” agenda real by restoring funding to schools and services to students this September. After a decade of deteriorating conditions, students should come back to school in September as beneficiaries of the ruling that restores teachers’ bargaining rights,” Lambert said."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saskatchewan teachers continue strike over wages

Yesterday and today Saskatchewan teachers again withdrew services in an attempt to push the government to improve the wage offer during negotiations. See the news release here: https://www.stf.sk.ca/portal.jsp?Sy3uQUnbK9L2RmSZs02CjV+Oqh1Nw+R5YW0zSP6f8I0w=F

Saskatchewan teachers are seeking parity with Western Canadian averages. They are asking for 16% over three years. The last government offer is 6%.

Saskatchewan teachers are already slightly ahead of BC teachers in terms of salary. We would need even higher increases in order to be in line with Alberta and Ontario, or with the Western Canadian average. BC teachers used to be third in the country, but have now slipped to eighth, with respect to salaries.

Saskatchewan Teachers Federation's Gwen Dueck described the government's offer:

"Dueck added that the government’s words and actions are not matching up. “We hear that teachers are valued but there seems to be little willingness to demonstrate that in a collective agreement. Instead, teachers are being threatened with layoffs and being attacked for wanting to take part in Saskatchewan’s booming economy.”"

Dueck has also pointed out that in Alberta, teachers are receiving wage increases of 5.99% for 2009/10 and 2.95% for 2010/11 and 4.54% in 2011/12. In Manitoba, the increases are 3% in 2010 followed by 3% in 2011.

Across North America this double speak takes place. US Education Secretary's open letter to US teachers expressing how much they were "valued" also rang false when State governments are attacking wages, pensions, working conditions, and there are mass layoffs.

In BC, the government continues to stick to it's "net zero mandate", insisting that teachers here should receive 0% and 0% for the next two years. This is at the same time that Education Minister George Abbott tells teachers he is concerns about "job satisfaction". This would make BC teachers fall even further behind and expresses neither value, appreciation nor an interest in having the best teachers want to work in BC.

Are Saskatchewan and BC so different with respect to their economies? Bank of Montreal economists predict GDP growth for 2011 in Saskatchewan of 4% and in BC of 3.1%, both outperforming the national average. With inflation rates over 3%, increases of 3% only maintain the status quo with respect to salaries.

Kudos to the Saskatchewan teachers for standing up for fair and reasonable wage increases when the economy is doing well. And I hope the BC government is willing to reconsider their draconian wage offer in light of the improved BC economy and that it doesn't take strike action to make them be reasonable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why is BC gov't using same buzzwords as Rupert Murdoch???

My fears about "personalized learning" went up a notch when I read yesterday that this is (surprise, surprise) also the "vision" of none other than news magnate Rupert Murdoch. (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/may/24/murdoch-eg8-invest-education-technology)

Janet Steffenhagen reported: "While saying technology will never replace teachers, he urged businesses to invest in digital innovations to revolutionize classrooms and promote personalized learning." (see: http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/reportcard/archive/2011/05/24/today-s-schools-quot-a-colossal-failure-of-imagination-quot-murdoch.aspx)

According to Murdoch, education should be personalized by using "targeted software" similar to how marketing sells products via the internet to target audiences. Buying computers for schools in unnecessary. This will apparently let us "ensure the poor child in Manila has the same chance as the rich child in Manhattan."

Is Mr. Murdoch living on another planet? In 2009, "Personal computer ownership is non-existent for the poorest half of all households in the country, while 30 percent of the richest income decile are able to own computers." (see: http://www.yps.org.ph/blog/digital-divide-philippines)

And why are wealthy newspaper magnates giving speeches on education reform in the first place? Didn't New York City learn that lesson when they hired Cathie Black, chairperson of Hearst Magazines, who lasted a few short months when her approval rating dropped to 17%. Even USA Today reported:

Black's departure is more fraught. Critics say she was never a good fit for the job — a businesswoman who had no education experience and never offered a compelling vision for city schools. Black is a former USA TODAY publisher and head of Hearst magazines.

"She came in with very little knowledge of school systems or of the educational debates," said Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., education think tank. "Neither she nor the mayor ever made it clear why she was the best one for that job." (see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-04-07-nyc-schools-chancellor-black_N.htm)

It is frightening that the BC government is pushing the same agenda. They have been very coy about the actual application of personalized learning, but it is becoming more and more clear that this involves a model of blended online and face to face learning. Read: fewer teachers, less instructional time for students. Or call it personalized if you want to dress it up, but that word can mean an awful lot of things.

Rosetta stone (the language learning software) is "personalized" in the Murdoch-ian / BC government sense. It is very good at adapting your lessons based on how you do on tests. If your pronunciation is weak, you get more speaking drills. But it is very standard in the sense that it is an off the shelf box. It doesn't know your child, your home, your community. It doesn't know your hopes and dreams. It is a far cry from the type of "personalization" that Sir Ken Robinson talks about - personalization based on the individual learner in a holistic and meaningful way.

But that costs money, doesn't it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

21C Learning: One student's perspective

This came across my email today...it is from a BC high school student, pondering on what all this 21st century learning might look like.

It is very funny - check it out,...the "in depth" topic for these students is "wind":

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Personalized learning - what is government's real motivation? $$$

I've tried to keep an open mind on this whole 21C learning thing. I really have. Despite the fact that from the start, it sounded like rhetoric, flavour of the day, and techno-babble.

But now that senior government representatives are meeting with BCPSEA (the BC public school employer's association - responsible for bargaining on behalf of school boards) to talk about 21C learning, and the "implications" for collective bargaining, I'm worried.

The Supreme Court decision on Bills 27 and 28 revealed the "plotting" that was going on in 2001 behind teachers' backs. While teachers were, in good faith, trying to bargain improved class size provisions with BCPSEA, there were meetings between BCPSEA and government about imposing legislative changes. There were, in essence, secret dealings whose purpose was to eliminate class size provisions from teachers' collective agreements. To eliminate $275 million per year in public education funding.

Things feel eerily similar. For about a year, the government has been trumpeting "21 century learning" and "personalized learning". It's not at all clear what these things mean. As one educator tweeted the other day, we've been doing 21st century learning for over a decade now. Or is it something different?

Now the government is in secret meetings to define these terms. They want to know, from senior school board administrators, what "barriers" there are in collective agreements. Officials were ordered not to "tweet" from the secret meetings, after one tweet revealed that the Minister of Education was discussing new legislation.

So while I try to keep my paranoid self in check, the thoughts that keep coming to the surface are these:

* 21st century learning is about increasing the use of technology in schools, in reaction to the massive push from technology companies to do so (see the recent report from the technology council), regardless of the pedagogical soundness of doing so

* personalized learning is about teachers working longer hours, planning more curriculum, doing more assessment, working 24/7 via email, having larger case loads...and along with this students having less instructional time

Why do I think these things? Well, tidbits just keep coming to the surface. Apparently the Ministry doesn't want to direct 21C learning - they want school boards to do that. But they do want to help BCPSEA eliminate any collective agreement provisions that might get in the way.

What could this look like? I saw a proposal earlier this year from a Principal at a Victoria secondary school. The idea was this: teach Planning 10 to all grade 10 students in one big class (over 100 students). Once a week, they come to the gymnasium, have a lecture style class, maybe with a guest speaker. Only one teacher and one counsellor are needed to deliver this section. The remainder of the course is taught "on line" with some individual teacher visits - sort of like the implementation of graduation portfolios. Each teacher can take a large case load, as they only see students perhaps once a week or once every two weeks. The bonus? Fewer teachers are needed to deliver the course to the same number of students.

I don't think the government's objectives are any different now than they were in 2001. They are interested in cutting more funding from the public education system. By far the biggest cost is the direct instructional time by teachers. The only way to reduce costs significantly is to increase the number of students per teacher, or to decrease the instructional minutes students are entitled to. The type of "semi-distributed" learning model described above does both at the same time.

And how to sell it to parents and the public? Call it "personalized learning".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ministry plots personalized learning initiative in secret

Today and tomorrow the Ministry of Education will be meeting to discuss public policy and education - specifically, the "personalized learning initiative". Without teachers. I guess teachers' viewpoints are not necessary for this discussion?

I received yesterday a response to my letter to Minister Abbott about this meeting. It came from Rick Davis, Superintendent of Achievement. Mr. Davis is now notorious in teacher circles. We all read pages 44-45 of the Supreme Court decision. Mr. Davis receives special mention:

"[143] I have approached Mr. Davis‟s evidence cautiously, as his affidavit evidence tended to characterize the facts less than objectively. For example, in his initial affidavit, Mr. Davis suggested that the bad examples he gathered were presented to BCTF at the bargaining table, and that BCTF “did not deny that these circumstances exist”. He further suggested that BCTF simply treated these circumstances as “a funding issue” and BCTF was adamant that “[t]he class size limit should not be violated”. This evidence was designed to assist the government argument that BCTF was unduly rigid about class size limits and to suggest that this was harming students and families.

[144] However, when Mr. Davis was pressed on this affidavit evidence in cross-examination, it became clear that it was not accurate."

With respect to today and tomorrow's meetings on the "personalized learning initiative", Mr.Davis wrote to me:

"There is a long tradition where deputy ministers have called meetings of superintendents and senior executive staff of school districts to discuss many policy matters ranging from funding formulae to the accountability framework. The purpose of this meeting is to hear directly from employers with regard to the anticipated impacts of personalized learning on human resource strategies employed by school districts. This does not preclude future forums and meetings that involve teachers and your organization with other education partners in support of transitions to personalized learning."

What I read from this is that teachers' voices are not needed for setting public policy, only "transitioning" to that policy. Perhaps this "long tradition" explains the decade long animosity between teachers and the government?

A worklife study of teachers taken by the BCTF found that the "attitude of the provincial government" was the FIFTH highest source of worklife stress, above "level of support for students with special needs". This is a shocking statistic, and describes the depth of frustration teachers feel about policy decisions that impact them, but where they have not been listened to. (http://bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Issues/WorklifeWorkload/2009/Chapter6.pdf)

Mr. Davis goes on to tell me: "The minister has said repeatedly that he intends to engage meaningfully with teachers."

Here is some advice regarding meaningful engagement:

1. Discuss policy initiatives with the teaching profession before you implement them
2. Incorporate teachers' concerns in policy initiatives
3. Respect the fact that the teaching profession is a primary source of information on how to improve teaching and learning - we are the experts and we are engaged in practice every day
4. When a decision is really about cutting costs, rather than improving teaching and learning, be up front about it with both teachers and the public (see the court ruling for more on this topic)
5. It's not about quantity - it's about quality - more meetings is not enough

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More downloading of costs to school districts - is anyone surprised?

After budgets are set, the government announces a new cost to school districts - property insurance. "Due to ministry funding pressures it will no longer be possible to cover premiums for loss replacement," says the Ministry.

The Vancouver School Board has rightly protested this cut and it looks like the Ministry, under pressure, might come up with part of the additional funding.

But is anyone really surprised? This has been the standard operating method of the Liberal government since they were first elected in 2001.

When the NDP negotiated class size limits in 1998, the explicitly attached a funding increase to Boards to ensure that they would have the funding to meet the added expense. But when the Liberals legislated a collective agreement in 2002, they didn't fund the salary increase. This led to a rash of school closures during the following several years. Boards simply did not have the funds to cover their operating costs. Closing schools and selling or leasing school properties was used to make up the difference.

Add to this, downloading of:

* increased pension payments
* carbon offsets
* carbon emission reporting
* MSP premiums
* facilities grants cuts
* unfunded hydro increases

The Liberals claim to promote "flexibility" and "choice", yet their funding decisions have only led to less flexibility and less choice. Without proper funding, there are fewer schools (hundreds closed across BC in the last decade), fewer programs, and fewer elective courses being offered. Perhaps the only real increase in programming has been in the area of "academies", where parents must pay a fee in order to attend (some fees are as much as $1000).

How is this "putting families first"?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

From New York to California: American teachers protest education cuts

Across the United States, the feeling of energy and purpose that drove the protests in Wisconsin is now igniting similar protest movements in other states.

Last week there were rallies across California - in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Signs read "Tax the rich" and "Bail out schools, not the banks".

In New York City on Thursday, 20,000 protesters marched down Wall Street. New York is implementing thousands more teacher layoffs this year on top of the recent loss of 5,000 teaching positions, despite a $3.2 billion surplus. The protests have a working class overtone. The Nation reported: "Some attendees view the budget cuts as a first shot in a much larger cultural conflict between the wealthy ruling elites and working class people. Mike Fox, a teacher at a Brooklyn charter school, believes the cuts and layoffs are the start of a class war. “It’s anti-city worker, so I’m here not just as a teacher, but for sanitation workers, policemen, firemen, all of the people who make the city work,” he said...As for sharing the burden, Fox said he doesn’t see people other than the poor sacrificing, and Bloomberg is playing too nice with the corporations on Wall Street when he should be demanding they contribute fairly to society." (http://www.thenation.com/blog/160653/massive-wall-street-protest-draws-over-20000)

This summer, there will be a large, pan-American March on Washington in support of public education, called Save our Schools (http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/). The protest is addressing funding cuts, teacher collective bargaining, high stakes standardized testing, and narrowing of the curriculum.

The teacher bashing in the Unites States has been widespread and particularly noxious. In keeping with an ideology of blame and shame, mainstream US media and government has waged a war against teachers and particularly teacher unions. The standardized testing regime that began in the 1980's, has reached its peak in the US, culminating with today's teacher evaluation system in New York City where 40% of the evaluation is based on student test scores.

Not surprisingly, the real reasons for so-called "reform" in the US are basically the same as here: cost savings, weakening union rights, and privatizing. But in the US, they have taken somewhat different forms.

Glut the Market - Lower standards for the teaching profession

The introduction of "Teach for America" came just as there was a looming teacher shortage in the US. "Teach for America" provides a shortened teacher training program and resulted in a massive increase in "certified" teachers in a very short period of time. This was critical to undermining union strength by creating a large pool of new teachers looking for employment and willing to take jobs with lower salaries and fewer employment rights.

In Canada, the same objective was achieved by increasing class sizes. This similarly led to significant layoffs just as a teacher shortage was approaching back in 2001.

Weaken union rights

This was late in coming to the US - our local BC government was one of the first when it introduced "Essential Services" legislation back in 2001. In the US, the attack on public sector union rights began in earnest this year and state government controlled by "Tea Party" Governors are leading the charge in legislative attacks on the right to organize, collect dues automatically, require membership and take job action.


In BC, this takes the form of the Fraser Institute rankings, opening of the catchment areas, and all the policies erroneously labeled as "choice" for parents. Choice means better quality for those who can afford it, and poor quality for those who can't. Able to drive your child across town? Then find the highest ranked school and register. Able to afford private school? Then you can easily have class sizes under 20. Able to pay school fees? Then welcome to Acadamy X, where your child gets additional programming and services.

In the US, they have used Charter schools and vouchers for the same purpose. Both allow public money to fund privately run schools, and have seriously eroded the public school system and the oversight of democratically elected School Boards. The result? An increased stratification in the school system between the haves and have nots. Interestingly, while US schools on average do rather poorly on international standardized tests, individual schools excel or fail. Income inequality and racial bias is reentering the US school system on an unprecedented level.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Victoria teacher bargaining breaks down

No new dates are set for local negotiations between Victoria teachers
and the Greater Victoria Board of Education. After only five days
meeting, the Board indicated only that “we will get back to you”
regarding future dates.

The Collective Agreement between teachers and the Board expires on
June 30th, 2011. Teachers are becoming increasingly concerned at the
lack of progress at both the provincial and local tables. Not a single
item has been signed off.

“If no meaningful negotiations take place prior to the expiry of the
agreement, teachers will be forced to consider what to do next,”
comments Gail Renard, middle school teacher and GVTA bargaining
co-chair. “The last thing we want is disruption in schools, but we
need meaningful bargaining to take place now if we are to get an
agreement in place for next year.”

Not a single Victoria Trustee sits on the Board bargaining team. This
concerns teachers. Where is the interest in bargaining when the
Trustees will not even come to the table? When teachers asked the
Board negotiating team why no Trustees were at the table, the response
was that no Trustee expressed any interest.

Victoria teachers rank amongst the highest in the province for rates
of illness and time off work related to stress. Workload is a major
issue in local negotiations. High stress and heavy workload has a
direct impact on students. Teachers are unable to meet the variety of
individual needs when classes are too large or too complex. Teacher
illness creates disruption for students and to program continuity.

While the provincial negotiations are addressing salary, benefits,
paid leaves and preparation time, local issues include a wide variety
of working conditions and professional issues of concern to teachers,
including class sizes and class composition. To date, although
several proposals have been made by teachers, there has been no
meaningful discussion on any of these issues at the local table.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Class size = Personalized learning

I find it so difficult to understand how the Ministry, Superintendents and Trustees can be so worked up about personalized learning and so reticent about improving class size.

Personalized learning is completely dependent on class size. The simple math is that the larger the class, the less personalized the learning. There are fewer minutes per child.

The best personalized learning happens with an individual education plan (and I mean not in the ministry sense, but the plain meaning), includes one-on-one, small group and large group instruction and activities, plenty of assessment to direct the learning and a program that is constantly evolving to reflect the learning taking place and where to go next.

Vygotsky, a Russian educational psychologist, in his widely accepted theory of learning, described the optimal learning occurring in the "zone of proximal development". This means that the best learning occurs when the student is attempting something just outside their current ability level. If they can already do it, they aren't learning. If it is too hard, they fail and don't learn.

Providing learning activities within a student's "zone" is possible only if either every student has the identical background to begin with and as they progress (an impossibility) or if activities are tailored to meet the student as much as possible.

Teachers try to meet students' needs. They practice "differentiated learning" - a teaching technique to attempt to meet different learning needs in the same time and at the same place. But this is an inadequate replacement for personalized learning. In a typical BC classroom, that might have multiple students on the autism spectrum, a student with mild intellectual disability, several students with learning disabilities, students who are gifted and above grade level, students who are behind grade level and students with English as a Second Language, successful personalized learning simply isn't possible. Differentiation is a very poor substitute for teacher time and attention.

So if these education partners mean what they say...if personalized learning is truly important, then class size will be too.

Only with small classes do teachers have the time to meet the individual needs of students. It's that simple.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Commission finds judges need cost of living adjustments after wage freeze

In a recent report by the BC Judges Compensation Commission, the Commission recommends that although judges should be bound by the "net zero" mandate with respect to wages, they should receive increases immediately afterwords that make up for the lost increases over the two year freeze.

Interestingly, the mandate is not considered with respect to other contract improvements including pension, health benefits, leaves and disability benefits.

The Commission considered input from the judges association as well as others. It has to consider the "current financial position of the government".

In the end, it recommended that in year three, the judges receive an increase equivalent to three years of the Cost Price Index increase. This would ensure that they do not fall behind as a result of the wage freeze for two years.

The report includes an interesting analysis of the government's rationale for the "net zero". In the end, "the Commission has concluded that it is reasonable to expect that the Government will be in a position to support increases in the 2013/14 fiscal year which will ensure fair and reasonable compensation for Provincial Court Judges....the Commission recommends that effective April 1, 2013,
puisne judges of the Provincial Court receive a salary increase equal to the accumulated increase in the B.C. Consumer Price Index over the preceding three fiscal years, compounded annually."

The Commission heard evidence brought by the judges Association by Mr. Ian McKinnon, an independent financial analyst, about the government's finances. For example:

"...the Government’s fiscal projections are historically conservative, and it can be reasonably expected that future deficits will be lower than presently forecast. This observation has been borne out by the Government’s recent $1 billion revision of the 2009/10 estimated deficit from -$2.775 billion to -$1.779 billion."

"...despite the economic downturn, recent provincial total debt-to-GDP ratios are among the lowest recorded over the past decade. ...
Currently, B.C. has the third-lowest debt-to-GDP ratio in Canada. That ratio is projected to rise by 3.9% to 25.9% by the 2012/13 fiscal year. Mr. McKinnon observes that even with this increase, provincial debt levels will remain below those seen over the past decade, and well below those of other advanced economies."

"Mr. McKinnon asserts that bond rating agencies provide an independent assessment
of a government’s ability to carry and service its debt load. In October 2006, Moody’s Investors Service raised British Columbia’s credit rating from “Aa1” to “Aaa”. The only other governments in Canada that enjoy “Aaa” credit ratings from Moody’s are the Government of Alberta and the federal government."

"Overall, Mr. McKinnon’s conclusion is that despite the recession, British Columbia’s financial position is “solid”."

The full report is available here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thoughts on a negotiated settlement over Bills 27, 28

After the euphoria of the court ruling, it is time for teachers to start thinking about what a negotiated settlement should look like coming out of the Bill 27 and 28 court ruling.

There are a number of aspects to any resolution: immediate corrections to the stripped language, future goals with respect to class size and composition, and remedy for the loss incurred over nine years.

The most immediate and pressing issue is the restoration of contract provisions for the 2011/2012 school year. Everyone would agree that disrupting classes mid-year would be less than ideal. It makes much more sense to address issues in time for school boards to plan classes and teaching resources for the fall.

Most districts had class size restrictions that exceed those currently in the School Act. For instance, K-3 (primary) would be at least 2 students smaller. Many districts had lower class sizes for split classes, and also for certain secondary subject areas such as Tech Ed and English.

In addition, many agreements had stronger limits on class composition. In Victoria, our Board was obliged to make every effort to ensure no class had more than 2 integrated students with special needs. To accomplish this for fall of 2011, many additional classes would be needed. Currently, our District staffing ratios mean roughly 300 classes exceed the School Act limit of 3. To meet the limit of 2, additional classes should be added.

Finally, most agreements included ratios for non-enrolling positions such as counselors and teacher-librarians. These positions should be restored for the fall.

Given the estimate in the court ruling that the "savings" to the government was about $275 million, a good first step would be for government to announce additional funding of this amount, as well as the restoration of the stripped provisions. This would allow Districts to set to work in staffing for the fall to meet these provisions. We know that there is money available in the "slush fund" left by outgoing Premier Campbell that current Premier Clark can access.

Beyond the immediacy of the fall, teachers would like to be able to start negotiating new provisions with their Boards locally. While we certainly expect the stripped language to be restored in accordance with the court ruling, there are also changes needed. Schools and Districts and student populations have changed since 2001. For example, the numbers of students with Autism spectrum disorders has increased in many areas. Local teachers associations would like the opportunity to be able to negotiate changes needed to address any new issues.

Lastly, the government will have to address the issue of remedy. Unlike the situation with the Hospital Employees Union, where contracting out meant many people impacted were no longer in the union, it will be much more straightforward how teachers were impacted by the legislation and what the costs were, because of the nature of legislation. For most teachers, substantial increases in workload resulted from the stripping of provisions. This was during the same time period that teachers earned less due to the trade offs in salary made for class size limits. In 1998 teachers agreed to take two years of "zero" salary increases essentially in exchange for provincial class size limits for K - 3. For the government, there was a direct cost savings resulting from the elimination of about 3000 teaching positions.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Minister announces government will not appeal court ruling

The Minister of Education George Abbott just release the following press statement. It is very good news!! Now the hard work will begin, to reach agreement on improvements to class sizes and class composition around the province.

The critical next step is funding. None of these agreements and improvements can happen without a government commitment to increased education funding.

The mood in staff rooms today was fantastic. It has been nine long years that teachers have felt deflated and devalued. It has been nine long years that teachers have put in their own blood, sweat and tears to keep our classrooms excellent places to learn while resources have dried up and classes have been overloaded. We cannot do it forever.

“Today, government has appointed Paul Straszak, president and CEO, Public Sector Employers' Council, to lead the initial phase of consultation with the BC Teachers’ Federation regarding the ruling of the Supreme Court of British Columbia on the Education Services Collective Agreement Act (Bill 27) and the Public Education
Flexibility and Choice Act (Bill 28). Government has decided not to pursue an appeal.

“Our priority now is to work with our education partners to focus our resources on meeting the needs of individual students as we move towards personalized learning, while ensuring appropriate learning conditions in our schools and proper support for B.C.’s teachers. The Supreme Court has given government 12 months to reach a negotiated resolution.

“We must be thoughtful and thorough in our approach. At the same time, we recognize that a prompt resolution is in the best interests of all those affected – teachers, students, parents and everyone with a stake in this province’s education system.

“I know the BC Teachers’ Federation and the BC School Trustees Association are keen to move forward on this issue, as are we. I have spoken with both Susan Lambert, the president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, and Michael McEvoy, the president of the BC School Trustees Association today about government’s decision and the consultation phase to resolve outstanding issues.

“I am hopeful that, through the consultative phase, we can come to a common view on the meaning and implication of the Supreme Court decision and reach a negotiated resolution.

“Government was successful working with our health partners in 2007-08 to reach a negotiated settlement to Bill 29, and I am optimistic that we can repeat that success with our teachers.”


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Saskatchewan teachers plan job action for Thursday

After an amazingly high strike vote, Saskatchewan teachers will be taking the first job action in their history on Thursday. Teachers are planning a one day "study session".

From the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation news release:

“Teachers remain committed to returning to the bargaining table to conclude an agreement that affirms the worth of teachers,” said Gwen Dueck, chief spokesperson for the Teachers’

Bargaining Committee. “We do not want to employ sanctions but clearly the provincial government and the Saskatchewan School Boards Association have not heard the message of teachers.”

Dueck added “our province is experiencing unprecedented growth and wealth and yet teachers are not being included in the province’s wealth. This government needs to demonstrate that education is a priority and that teachers and the service they provide are valued.”

Currently, teachers with a four-year degree starting out in Saskatchewan earn $7,560 a year less than the Western Canadian average. After 10 years of service, that number increases to $9,423 less than the Western Canadian average.

In a province wide vote on April 13, 2011, Saskatchewan teachers expressed overwhelming support for sanctions.

Teachers have been engaged in a protracted negotiation process for the last 11 months and have been without a contract since August 31, 2010."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Letter to Minister Abbott re: Teacher bargaining and the Personalized Learning Initiative

Dear Mr. Abbott,

It was with great disappointment that I read today on Janet Steffenhagen's blog that your deputy Minister, James Gorman, will be meeting with "board of education chairs, superintendents, secretary-treasurers and BCPSEA trustee representatives" to discuss "collective bargaining... in the context of the Personalized Learning

Why is the Ministry having this conversation with everyone except teachers' representatives?

When is the Ministry meeting with the BCTF on the Personalized Learning Initiative and the relationship with bargaining?

What is your response to our vision, Better Schools for BC, that we provided you at our Annual General Meeting?

Why have you not contacted us to discuss the recent court ruling regarding class size and composition and our collective agreement?

Where is the dialogue, the discussion, the engagement, with teachers on these very important and fundamental issues?

Mr. Abbott I attended the BCTF Annual General Meeting where you spoke. You said you would talk to Susan, to the BCTF Executive, and to teachers. I took you at your word, as did the hundreds of teachers in the audience. We want dialogue and we want solutions. We are tired of being marginalized in the public policy discussions that impact so dramatically on our daily work and on our profession.

I appreciate that the collective vision of the teaching profession may be different from that of government. But sensible, effective policy must be informed by those of us teaching in classrooms every day. You cannot ignore the voice of teachers.

We had another guest at our AGM a couple of years ago, Judy Rebick, who made an impression on me when she said: "I used to think that listening meant that I stopped talking and let the other person talk." It was a funny moment, but the message was real. Dialogue is more than being in the same room. Dialogue is more than returning a phone call. Dialogue is more than letting the other person have their say.

Mr. Abbott personalized learning first and foremost requires time. As you described in your speech, central to the learning process is the relationship between teacher and student. It is a simple matter of fact that a secondary teacher in British Columbia with 120 students has very limited time to spend with each student - be it for personalized instruction, personalized planning and curriculum development, or personalized assessment. Given the average 10-hour day that BC teachers report they work, this is still only 12 minutes per student.

Teachers in BC for many years have been trying to address this problem by bargaining class size and class composition provisions. Fewer students means more time per student, and more ability to personalize learning. We sacrificed pay increases to make learning conditions better for students by trading off salary for class size. Your government unilaterally stripped these agreements from contract and a court has now found that this violated our constitutional rights.

The day of the court ruling, Ms. Lambert called on you to meet with her. She, on our behalf, has called on government to meet with teachers to address this situation immediately. This is directly related to both bargaining and the Personalized Learning Initiative. Why have you not called to meet with her? Why is your deputy Minister meeting without us to discuss these issues?

As Education Minister, you simply cannot ignore the collective voice of 40,000 teachers. That is not the path to better schools and an excellect education system.

Please ensure that teachers' voices are included meaningfully in this discussion.

Tara Ehrcke
Secondary math and computer teacher
President, Greater Victoria Teachers' Association

Sunday, May 1, 2011

School boards and parents: speak now to pressure Clark to restore funding to education

As the planning for September begins in districts across BC, there is an opportunity not to be missed by School Trustees and parents to call on the government to restore funding and reinstate class size and class composition limits, as well as non-enrolling teaching services.

Very soon, the government will make a decision about whether or not to appeal the BC Supreme Court ruling. An appeal would be costly and take time. Nine years has been far too long already for students, parents and teachers to wait to have funding restored. But it may take concerted pressure to ensure that Clark does what she claims and puts "families first".

I was so heartened this week to learn that the Saanich School Board took a courageous stand and submitted a deficit budget with class sizes and services restored. This is a clear and unambiguous message to the government to restore funding. I was very disheartened that the Victoria Board responded to teachers' call for restoration simply by saying they could do nothing.

Now is the time for School Boards and individual Trustees to speak out. Now is the time for public pressure to restore services.

Only pressure to ensure Clark's government acts to restore funding will solve the immediate failings of our school system for children like those described in this post on Janet Steffenhagen's blog:

My son's resource teacher is one of only two at a large high school, with about 1100 or 1200 kids. Those two teachers are responsible for writing about 180 individualized education plans. The school no longer has any Learning Assistance service. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident-his cousin goes to a different secondary school and the situation with support staff is just as bleak. Resource teachers and Learning Assistant teachers need to be in place, and with case load limits so that the kids get adequate attention and time. So Christie, and friends-since you folks destroyed special education support services in this province, how about doing the right thing, and reinstating them. How about putting some of the colossal raises you guys voted yourselves back into the support services you stripped?

(see: http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/reportcard/archive/2011/04/26/bctf-calls-for-fast-action.aspx#comments)