Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BCPSEA pushing American style "reform" agenda

Based on the BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) bargaining proposals, and government presentations on "education policy", it is clear that BCPSEA, School Boards, and the Ministry of Education are promoting American style education "reform".

Proposals include the virtual elimination of seniority, the removal of any due process requirements for teacher evaluations, the ability to force a teacher to move to another job merely with one month's notice, and the ability to fire a teacher after a single evaluation.

Why this should be is mind-boggling: we consistently outrank the US on international randomized assessments. We have a much better education system now, and following their mistaken path is about the worst thing we could do.

The US "blame the teacher" reform agenda is political. It is about commodifying and privatizing education. It is a total rejection of the notion of equity. Instead of quality, equal access, and equal opportunity, it promotes competition, consumer driven models and private service delivery.

The end result? Very good schools that are hyper competitive for the rich. Pretty awful schools for the poor. Struggling schools for everyone in between. Is this where we want to go? The recent outpouring of generosity for a Vancouver teacher trying to meet the needs of poor inner city children suggests not.

Here is a quick quote on life in the elite world of private schools in America:

"As more solid or even stellar students hire expensive tutors, the achievement bar rises, and getting ahead quickly becomes keeping up." (

Here is the life of "struggling" schools in middle class America:

"The number of elementary and middle schools receiving D’s and F’s under New York City’s grading system more than doubled this year from last after Department of Education officials did away with a safety net that prevented some schools from falling too far." (

And here is what America's poor face:

"Schools are no longer legally segregated, but because of residential patterns, housing discrimination, economic disparities and long-held custom, they most emphatically are in reality.

“Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who specializes in education issues." (

The focus of American reform is "teacher quality" and elimination of teachers' unions. The methods used are standardized testing, reduction/elimination of seniority provisions and bargaining rights, "value added" teacher quality testing and ranking, and merit pay. At the same time, the school system is slowly reconfigured around student/parent "choices". In the US this usually takes the form of Charter schools, who are not regulated through local government. It also involves reducing overall education funding, which results in larger class sizes and fewer teachers.

By focusing on "teacher quality", US reform ignores the more fundamental issues: poverty, race, environment (parents, neighborhood). It is a myth that the "problem" with schools is bad teachers. They are simply being used as a scapegoat for much bigger social issues. If teachers are the problem, then it can't be poverty, so the lie goes. And so all we have to do is fire the bad teachers (or pay them less?), and schools will improve. Except they don't.

One of the great tragedies of the loss of what Americans call "tenure" (and we generally refer to as "seniority") is that it often results in the GOOD teachers losing their jobs. Seniority provisions protect teachers with more service to the school. They also prevent discrimination from Principals and school Administration (such as nepotism and favouratism). Senior teachers are typically the ones with the most experience, are most likely to have higher education (such as a Master's degree) and highest pay. Elimination of tenure in the US has resulted in many of these teachers losing their jobs because they cost more. It has nothing to do with "teacher quality". In value-added, "merit pay" systems, no one gets fired, but the ninety percent of teachers who do not get the merit pay are pretty demoralized. One Los Angeles teacher was so crushed when his "value added" score was published and ranked in the LA Times that he committed suicide. In fact, it would be a credible claim to say that US teachers as a whole are pretty demoralized.

American education theorist Bill Ayers describes the situation this way:

"We're living in the darkest times for teachers that I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to fully understand how the conversation about what makes a robust, vital education for citizens in a democracy has degraded to the point where the frame of the whole discussion is that teachers are the problem. It's true that good schools are places where good teachers gather, but there's another piece to that: Good teachers need to be protected to teach, supported to teach, put into relationships with one another - and with the families of the kids - so that they can teach."

So why, I wonder, is this what the BC government and School Trustees want? Why are they promoting a "blame the teacher" agenda?


  1. I think there's confusion in the Ministry about what structures it needs in place to actually create their proposed personal learning system. The debate in the States is no doubt influencing their movements behind the scenes. Ironically, that debate down south has evolved considerably in the past year - it's far less contentious and political than it was. Even the Gates Foundation, which used to be all about value-added test scores, has concluded that teachers need multiple forms of assessment.

    I think its fair to say that not all teachers are great and that if we want to pursue whole scale reform, the topic needs to be on the table. The question then becomes, how do we identify weaknesses and give professional development opportunities to rectify the situation. From my understanding, we already do a much better job with that process than the US, but I'm sure there's room for improvement. That doesn't, however, require the elimination of seniority or due process.

  2. I think you are missing the real intention of the Ministry. They want to focus on so called "teacher quality" because it let's them avoid dealing with funding, poverty, supports for students, class size, etc. etc.

    The current focus in the US is totally counter productive - it is driving great teachers AWAY from teaching. It is not improving "teacher quality". Have a look at this interesting book:

    But there's an elephant in the room...the greatest teacher in the world can't help a student living in extreme poverty...The biggest factors on student learning are OUTSIDE the school - in the home, the community, the rest of the student's life. US reformers don't want to deal with any of these issues, and they are using teachers as scapegoats for problems in society they have no responsibility for. This is totally unfair but also let's governments off the hook for these societal problems.

  3. I do see what you're saying. I agree 100% that if we are focusing on the achievement gap, per say, more will be done by reducing poverty than teacher quality.

    However, you can't deny that a great teacher in the classroom can make a big difference in student engagement and achievement. As I said before, I think everything should be on the table if we're going to talk reform, including poverty and teacher quality.

    The major problem is that the union is in contract negotiations, so of course the government is going to try and secure such huge changes. It's disrespectful to teacher's rights, but I wouldn't have expected anything less.